The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March proved something of a perfect storm for Melanie Brett.
The Galveston resident had a part-time job she loved at Grace Episcopal Church and was about to begin a second job for the U.S. Census that would have ensured she had enough money to pay rent and other bills, she said. The U.S. Census job fell through because of the pandemic, and she found herself staring eviction in the face.
Luckily, with the help of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Brett received rental assistance and was able to stave off eviction, she said. Brett considers herself an optimistic person and is quick to praise everyone who helped her remain in her apartment, but the future remains uncertain, and she still worries about what might happen if she doesn’t find more work soon.
“I’m just scared,” she said, amid tears. “I’m scared of being evicted, and I don’t think I’d be able to get another apartment if I were evicted, even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
For hundreds of residents in the Galveston County who were among the many thousands of Texans who lost jobs because of the pandemic and related closures, the situation is looking even more dire than Brett’s.
Landlords in Galveston County have filed more than 550 eviction actions in local courts since the pandemic began, according to data provided by David McClendon, a principal for Houston-based January Advisors, a consulting firm that studies data.
In sheer numbers, those evictions trail the likes of Harris County with its 8,077, but Galveston County actually leads the state in the rate of eviction filings, with about 13.9 for every 1,000 renters, McClendon said.
Those who work most closely with people facing eviction in Galveston County are beginning to feel the strain.
“Please pardon the language, but I am f***ing slammed,” said Leslie Burgoyne, managing attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid’s Galveston office. “In just the last two days, I’ve gotten six new cases, deemed eligible for services and categorized as emergencies.”
Lone Star Legal Aid is a statewide service providing counsel to low-income Texans.
The deputies that handle evictions for the Galveston County Constable Precinct 2 office also are seeing that uptick, Constable Jimmy Fullen said. Deputies begin work as early as 6 a.m. and are working 12- and 13-hour days just to keep up with the eviction filings that have been pouring in, they said.
“You have to look at it from both ways,” Fullen said. “You have a lot of sympathy for people renting who are without jobs and unable to pay rent. But at the same time, it’s also a business for a landlord. They need to make money because they also have bills to pay and aren’t being compensated. We’re put in between them.”
The renters facing eviction seem to run the gamut from those who are habitual rent offenders and those who are true victims of the pandemic, and just need some extra help, Fullen said.
“It’s horrible, it really is,” Fullen said. “The pandemic has got us all flipped upside down.”
‘GOING TO BE INSANE’
Brett found a second part-time job at island restaurant Kritikos Grill as a hostess, working Fridays and Saturdays, but she knows she needs more work if she’s going to make the numbers work, she said.
Wild as it might sound, that’s actually one reason Brett agreed to be interviewed by The Daily News — the hope that someone might read the story and reach out to her about work.
“I have a great résumé that I’d send to anyone that’s interested,” she said. “I’m a hard worker, I’m dependable.”
Brett is reluctant to leave Galveston, in no small part because her son is set to begin his senior year at Ball High School, she said.
Even for those renters lucky enough to secure rental assistance, it often isn’t enough, Burgoyne said. And conditions could soon get even worse.
“I’m expecting it to be so much worse starting next month,” she said. “The CARES Act put a moratorium on evictions for federally subsidized properties and federally backed mortgages until July 24. At that point, they required a 40-day notice. We’re right on the precipice of that now. The next few weeks are going to be insane.”
DELAYING THE INEVITABLE
In March, Congress approved the $2 trillion relief package, the CARES Act, aimed at offsetting economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Associated Press.
Burgoyne has overseen 19 eviction trials since early June and has “won” somewhere between 60 percent and 75 percent of them, she estimates.
Of course, when asked what it means to win an eviction proceeding, she says it normally means just delaying the inevitable.
“It means pointing out the landlord doing something procedurally inaccurate, so the case gets dismissed,” she said. “Of course, the landlord just turns around and refiles. But a lot of people are able to get out before that next eviction is filed, so they manage to move on without an eviction on their record.”
Burgoyne in recent weeks has overseen some especially tough eviction cases, such as one woman who had a writ of possession, directing the constable to take possession of a property, issued just after the woman had recovered from coronavirus and was ending a county-imposed quarantine, Burgoyne said.
“He’s still evicting her,” Burgoyne said of the landlord.
‘NOT A GREAT YEAR’
As bad as the situation looks statistically, it’s probably even worse than officials know, McClendon said.
“Looking at evictions, the Hispanic and Latino population is not as represented as we’d expect them to be based on the numbers,” McClendon said. “We suspect that in some cases, just the threat of eviction causes people to leave, and so it never advances to a court filing.”
Constables have been especially busy since about mid-June, with them largely playing catch-up, said Hassan Mustafa, chief deputy in Fullen’s office.
But on the whole, 2020 actually lags behind previous years in terms of total eviction-related citations the office has served, Mustafa said. For instance, the office issued 517 between March and August 2018, but only 196 in 2020.
Despite that, Mustafa expects the office will finish the year with more served than any previous year when all is said and done, he said.
“It’s just a bleak picture,” he said. “It’s not a great year for, well, really anything.”