Without a regular paycheck, many Galveston County renters who normally are able to pay all their bills are coming up short on rent, and there are few protections in place for them beyond the good will of a landlord or a helping hand until they’re back on their feet.

Residents behind on rent payments because of the COVID-19 shutdown remain at risk of being evicted, even though the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday gave them a reprieve, extending a moratorium on evictions until May 18.

That action means evictions can’t move through the courts until that date.

“What the decision really means is legal eviction proceedings are suspended,” said Zoe Middleton, Southeast Texas co-director for Texas Housers, a housing advocacy group that supported the moratorium.

“Landlords can still file evictions, but they are temporarily paused,” Middleton said. People can still receive a notice to vacate from their landlord, but the reality is that people are not evicted unless it’s ordered by a justice of the peace.”

It’s not possible to tell at this point how many eviction notices have been filed in Galveston County or delivered to tenants because justice of the peace courts are closed and dockets have not been published, according to Judge Mark Green’s office in Santa Fe.

But it’s clear that many people in the county are unable to pay their rent because of temporary unemployment or cuts in working hours, according to Middleton.

INTIMIDATION AND HARASSMENT

The federal government has halted evictions until Aug. 23 for properties covered by federally backed mortgages, generally low-income housing.

In some Texas municipalities, like Dallas, local authorities have put ordinances in place to stop evictions of people unemployed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But evictions are seven times as prevalent for renters as for homeowners, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. And in Texas, 65 percent of renters work in the accommodation and food services industry, hit hard by the COVID-19 shutdown.

In Galveston County and its municipalities, no rent relief action has been taken, so renters are left to negotiate a payment plan with their landlord or find money from a relief organization to help them pay rent — unfamiliar and uncomfortable processes for people who normally are able to pay their bills.

Middleton recommends that renters work out a payment plan with their landlord sooner rather than later.

“That’s the best way to buy yourself some time and make sure an eviction won’t be filed against you,” she said.

Unlike forbearance agreements struck with banks by mortgage holders that can extend for many months, rent payment plans tend to be shorter, negotiated on a month-to-month basis, Middleton said. Landlords should waive late fees once a payment plan has been agreed on and renters should understand that if they don’t abide by the plan, the landlord is free to resume or start eviction.

Additionally, though there is no legal penalty against it, landlords should not be engaged in intimidating and harassing tactics against non-paying tenants, Middleton said.

“We hear lots of reports of intimidation by landlords, everything from looking up people’s personal information on their rental application and using Social Security numbers to see if they received their CARES check from the government, to threats about immigration status, using fear of ICE against folks,” Middleton said.

‘A BIG SOMETHING’

Jerry Smith operates three apartment complexes in the county — Harborwalk Apartments and The Shore Apartments in League City and The Breakers in Texas City — and is on the board of the Galveston County Apartment Association.

Smith said collections were surprisingly good, although unusually slow in April, and he expects May will be worse.

“We usually see most rents paid over the first few days of the month, but in April we saw payments stretched out over the month,” Smith said. “I think people filed their taxes and got refunds and some got stimulus checks from the federal CARES Act. That helped.”

A small number of people have said they’re not paying rent because they can’t be evicted, but most tenants have worked out payment plans at his properties, he said.

“Most of our tenants who asked for payment plans were waiting on unemployment,” Smith said. “I feel like we’re going to have a lot of conversations about payment plans in May.”

Nonetheless, the job of a landlord is to collect enough rent to pay his own bills.

“We’re basically monitoring our cash on a daily basis,” Smith said. “We have obligations, debt service to pay, escrow on property taxes, maintenance on our buildings, things we have to fund. And if money doesn’t come in, we’re in a tough spot.”

Suzy Domingo, executive director of Interfaith Caring Ministries in League City, a nonprofit providing one-time rent, utility and food assistance, has seen three times the normal number of requests for assistance during April.

“We’ve seen more clients and a different clientele than we typically see,” Domingo said.

Domingo’s agency has made partial rent payments for people unable to access government relief, like a stimulus check or unemployment, for any reason. And in her community, the need is high, she said.

“We are more than happy to help, mostly with rent. And everybody that comes in gets a week’s worth of groceries,” she said.

Of the 350 people that went to Interfaith Caring Industries in April, most were temporarily out of work or had their hours cut and were short on rent money, she said.

“We’re here to help people that typically can make it paycheck to paycheck, then something happens, a bump in the road,” she said.

“COVID-19 is a big something.”

Kathryn Eastburn: 409-683-5257; kathryn.eastburn@galvnews.com.

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(9) comments

Bailey Jones

I've always held that any innocent party who is damaged as a result of an encounter with government should be made whole by government. It would seem straightforward for either landlords or their tenants to apply to the feds for rent, given that this economic shutdown is mandated by the government. That should be a no brainer for the Rent Collector in Chief.

Ray Taft

President Trump is willing to help Americans. He’s on the job for America.

The do-nothing Democrats ain’t. Speaker Nancy ‘ice cream eating’ Pelosi and her band of obstructionist Democrats are unwilling to help anyone but themselves.

And if your uncle Joe were president, he won’t even know what day of the week it was. And he would be too busy chasing skirts anyway.

Bailey Jones

"Lord knows, I can't change

Lord help me, I can't change

Lord, I can't change

Won't you fly high, free bird, yeah"

Carlos Ponce

"any innocent party who is damaged as a result of an encounter with government should be made whole by government"

So Bailey is saying make the Chinese government pay. Good idea. Our Federal government was not responsible, China was.

Bailey Jones

I see that you got the memo, Carlos. Good deflection.

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/24/gop-memo-anti-china-coronavirus-207244

Wayne D Holt

I know people in Austin who are using force majeure justifications and fighting every step of the way to keep from being thrown under the bus on this. I can't blame renters or those with mortgage payments who were ready and willing to work and not allowed to. I also don't blame landlords and those who own the properties who are facing the same pressures from their creditors.

It will come as no surprise to you at whose feet I do lay the responsibility for this. The folks who had the power to shut down an entire economy and throw (now estimated) 30,000,000 Americans out of work but apparently were too preoccupied with reading tea leaves to try to have mechanisms in place to ease the plight of renters, home owners and landlords.

The true extent of the damage to people's lives is just now beginning to come into focus. It's going to get a lot worse in the weeks and months ahead. The political class is responsible...but you will NEVER get them to admit it.

Chuck DiFalco

Bailey Jones, you got the wrong government. The federal government did not force lockdowns - state and local governments did. The federal government only stopped international passenger traffic.

Bailey Jones

Local governments issued the orders, but it was national policy. And financial relief comes from the feds, since they hold our national taxes. But, if Abbott want's to step up and help people pay their rent, I won't object.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/03.16.20_coronavirus-guidance_8.5x11_315PM.pdf

Chuck DiFalco

"Local governments issued the orders, but it was national policy." So? Policy is just blather. Votes and orders are what matter in government. I lived these truths for 23 years as a publicly elected government official.

"As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do." --Andrew Carnegie

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