Op-Ed: How Justice of the Peace Courts Can Rectify Harris County’s Eviction Crisis
Harris County is experiencing a slow-moving eviction crisis created by a lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages and limited protection for the most vulnerable tenants. Even before the pandemic, eviction was the leading cause of housing loss in Harris County, with 111,038 tenant households evicted between 2017 and 2019. Evictions hurt everyone. They are harmful to tenants, disruptive to landlords, and undermine the very fabric of our communities and neighborhoods. Harris County can act as a leader in the state by thinking beyond the pandemic to create lasting solutions to reduce evictions and mitigate the damage of this crisis.
The pandemic is making a bad situation worse for countless families and pushing even more Houstonians into homelessness. In fact, 15% of Houston’s homeless population cite the pandemic as the main reason for their homelessness. While the September 2020 CDC eviction moratorium has brought some relief, it has not stopped evictions in general. The moratorium required tenants to specifically invoke the policy, meaning defendants had to go through the bureaucratic burden of researching the moratorium, completing an affidavit, and filing it with the court. This created an accessibility issue – only 13% of Harris County defendants were even able to access this policy. And in the three months since the CDC’s moratorium was lifted, eviction requests in Houston have increased by 39%.
The Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program has also brought some relief to Houston residents. This program has distributed $283 million in federal funding during 2021 and is receiving an additional $13 million from Treasury reallocations. However, the fact that this funding continues to run out rapidly is proof that more help is needed. As recently as the week of Jan. 10, Houston landlords filed 2,040 eviction cases, 13% higher than historical filing averages for January.
(Picture from Expulsion Lab)
The problem has worsened not only because of the economic effects of the pandemic, but also because Texas has some of the toughest policies in the country for renters, and renters have few options to protect themselves against landlords. predators and exploiters. Landlords are only required to give three days notice for eviction notices. Additionally, landlords are allowed to charge late fees at their discretion and judges are not required to seal eviction records meaning that once a person has been evicted it can become almost unable to find suitable accommodation.
Despite the enormous ripple effects of eviction and the high social cost of eviction, only about 4% of defendants in eviction cases have an attorney in Harris County. Even when tenants are able to get legal representation, the law limits the factors that can be considered in an eviction case, making it difficult for tenants to fight retaliatory evictions.
Justice of the Peace (JP) courts are the first for eviction cases in Harris County. When someone takes the day off to appear in court, they deserve to be heard, but most of the time these courts just automatically validate landlord evictions. Sometimes evictions are necessary, but landlords are not clients of justices of the peace. As the largest county in Texas with sixteen JP courts, we should lead the charge in Texas to innovate solutions to reduce evictions as much as possible. But at the moment, the JP courts are not doing enough to prevent evictions and help people access resources. Last year, only five of the current sixteen justices of the peace even submitted budget requests to increase their budgets for additional staff or new programs such as eviction diversion.
Our JP courts can and must be transformed into community-centered courts that connect people to comprehensive services, reduce evictions, and reduce barriers for tenants seeking redress. We can remove barriers to access by making big changes like allowing legal aid organizations to operate out of court and have after-hours roles, as well as small fixes like removing arbitrary dress codes and codes of conduct, such as bans on chewing gum or using a phone while waiting for your hearing.
The purpose of a tribunal is to provide access to justice, not to belittle or reprimand the most vulnerable people. We need to rethink how JP courts work to ensure everyone, not just landlords, has the full protection of the law and the help they need. Harris County Courts can and should be progressive model courts that strengthen our community and lead the way for the rest of the state.
Steve Duble is a progressive candidate for Harris County Justice of the Peace (precinct 1, plaza 2), running to reduce evictions through eviction diversion and increase transparency, accessibility and fairness.