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.”