Austin-area landlords say new eviction protections aren’t sustainable
Absent in the new order was any accompanying financial assistance from the federal government, which landlords and tenant advocates say would have gone a long way toward keeping unpaid tenant debts from spiraling out of control while also ensuring that property owners have the means to pay their own mortgages.
“The CDC decision is causing a lot of fear, and everybody I know, including myself, is jumping to action stations,” said Mark Hurley, a rental property owner. “If we have a moratorium extended to December that doesn’t have some sort of rental assistance attached to it, we’re going to have a huge problem for everyone — landlords and renters.”
Hurley until recently was president of the Texas Apartment Association, a nonprofit that provides education and advocacy to rental property owners.
The eviction moratorium does not override existing local orders, such as protections in Austin and Travis County from justices of the peace taking up an eviction case through the end of September. The federal order covers any renter who expects to make no more than $99,000 in income this year or no more than $198,000 if filing a joint tax return. Renters must declare that if evicted they would likely become homeless, need to move into a homeless shelter, or need to move into a new residence shared by other people who live in close quarters — all of which could increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
The order does not waive fees, and, in fact, requires tenants who desire eviction protections to sign a declaration stating landlords can still require full payment for all unpaid debts when the moratorium ends. It also requires tenants to declare they attempted to obtain government financial assistance.
Fred Fuchs, a housing attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said the new federal moratorium will provide relief to tenants facing imminent evictions. But he also said federal financial assistance specifically for rent payments is essential or people will wind up with huge, cumulative bills once the moratorium expires — with eviction and ruined credit the likely outcome for some.
“Folks who have lost their jobs and are having to work part-time or cobble together funds here and there with side gigs while they are waiting to get back to full employment, when Jan. 1 comes there is going to be a huge bill to pay to the piper,” said Fuchs, whose nonprofit organization provides free legal services for low-income people.
“We are pleased that (tenants facing imminent eviction) have this temporary relief,” he said. “But we are concerned and wary about what comes after Jan. 1 if there is no significant rental assistance” from the federal government.
Many landlords agree that federal assistance for rent payments is needed.
Lyndsay Hanes, president of a property management group with 48 units in North Austin, said she was disappointed that there was no new financial assistance tied to the CDC announcement, but Hanes said she is “thankful that there are some provisions within the order that will hold our residents accountable for demonstrating financial impact and requiring them to apply for assistance.”
Leni Louazna, regional manager for Atlantic Pacific, which has properties in Austin and San Marcos, said delaying eviction dates is unsustainable.
“The key to success is providing more rental assistance so residents can stay in their homes, so their kids can stay in schools, so they can keep their jobs,” she said.
San Antonio, which set aside $50 million for rental assistance early in the pandemic, now has about $3 million available. Austin appears to be in a better spot, with city officials projecting there is enough money available to make an average of 2,000 monthly rent payments through January, or until funds are fully committed. The money will come from federal dollars distributed earlier in the pandemic as well as local dollars, totaling $12.9 million.
As of Thursday morning, 3,900 applications for the aid had been submitted in the two weeks since the city began accepting them. That marked a steep drop from the first round of rental assistance in May, when the city received about 10,000 applications — later determining 5,500 as eligible — and disbursed $1.2 million in assistance.
“There appears to be less demand,” said Pilar Sanchez, vice president at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.
Travis County also has a rental and mortgage assistance program separate from Austin. When it debuted in late June, there was $9.5 million available. As of Monday, the county had doled $1.5 million.
Prior to the CDC eviction moratorium, Austin and Travis County had issued compatible orders that halted evictions through the end of September. It put them at odds with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who issued a nonbinding legal opinion stating that local governments lacked the authority to enforce such measures.
There are exceptions to the local eviction moratorium, including if a tenant poses a threat of physical harm or engages in criminal behavior. But by and large, eviction proceedings will be on hold until the new year, given the nationwide stoppage. Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu said it’s difficult to forecast how many will pop up on his docket.
“Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns — how many landlords are holding off on evictions until the moratorium ends?” Chu said. “We’ve been thinking about it. Our job is to prepare the best we can.”