Houston Chronicle

Advocates work to inform about eviction order

- By Alejandro Serrano STAFF WRITER

Housing advocates in Houston are worried that renters who are behind in payments may be unaware that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended the eviction moratorium through March 31.

While some groups are canvassing apartment complexes with recent eviction filings, knocking on doors and slipping informatio­nal flyers in door frame cracks, they acknowledg­e that a coordinate­d government effort could help to inform those in need or to streamline the aid. Landlords could be offered incentives to tell their tenants, and justices of the peace could be educating renters about how to fill out the mandatory forms needed to take advantage of the federal order.

Instead, the responsibi­lity has fallen on the renter, likely without a lawyer, to fill out a form similar to an affidavit, advocates say.

Despite its shortcomin­gs, advocates and experts say, the order still has provided relief.

“At this moment, all of these tools are helpful,” said Kyle Shelton, deputy director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “None of them are singular solutions.”

Efforts to inform people about this specific tool are underway in the Houston area.

On Wednesday, the Houston City Council unanimousl­y passed a “grace period” ordinance to help protect renters from eviction through the end of March. Council backup materials said it prohibits landlords from

“evicting or initiating, in any way, any eviction proceeding … against a covered person.” The city is using the qualifying language from the CDC eviction moratorium.

On a recent morning, Alain Cisneros, of the organizati­on Familias Inmigrante­s y Estudiante­s en la Lucha, or FIEL, called a woman who had texted him that she needed assistance.

He asked her a series of questions: What kind of help do you need? (With rent). How far behind are you? (About two months). What happened? (Two people who lived with her fell ill and moved out, leaving her to cover their share).

Every day, Cisneros estimated, 15 to 20 families contact a phone number shared by FIEL for people seeking some kind of help who may prefer to speak with someone in Spanish.

“This is one of the issues, right?” Cisneros said. “I believe now, in every community, people don’t know this form is updated.”

He pointed to a copy of the extended eviction order’s form that must be filled out.

“This form needs just, basically, delivery to the (property) managers,” he said. “The CDC, the federal government say, ‘Yes, the moratorium is extended to March 31,’ but it’s not happening like miracles. You need to fill it out.”

Cisneros was among a handful of individual­s — a group that included an offduty city firefighte­r and staffers of Harris County Precinct 2 Commission­er Adrian Garcia’s office — who had gathered in Galena Park recently to distribute flyers at an apartment complex.

“Since so many residents in my precinct aren’t getting the informatio­n they need about their protection­s from eviction, perhaps because they don’t have reliable internet access or cable TV, we’ve decided to take the message directly to them,” Garcia said in a statement. “We’ve found that our outreach is the first time they are made aware of their rights, so I’m glad my team is making these efforts.”

Trenstacia Jackson, 24 and almost five months pregnant, stopped working a few weeks ago when her employer saw a slowdown in work and she struggled with reliable transporta­tion.

She’s been trying to stay afloat and stable, but her bills recently increased so she’s trying to move. She grabbed one of the group’s flyers.

“Not having extra money is killing me,” she said. “Trying to find extra work is hard.”

The pandemic has forced modificati­ons to nearly all aspects of life, further challengin­g outreach efforts, said Shelton, the Rice University expert. That’s especially true in a region like the Houston area, which is home to a diverse population that speaks many different languages and consumes informatio­n in different ways.

“You can’t tell people at the library what’s happening,” he said.

Beyond trying to spread informatio­n, housing advocates say the CDC’s order itself could be stronger by not relying on the tenant to fill out the declaratio­n and file it with their landlord.

“Is it working? When it’s enacted it works,” said Jeff Reichman, a principal at the consulting firm January Advisors, who recently conducted an analysis of Harris County eviction data to try to assess the order’s efficacy. “But it’s not enacted in every case, it’s not even enacted in every eligible case.”

The form can also be confusing as a tenant has to meet all the CDC’s conditions, but some forms have a box checklist instead of bullet points.

And the task must be completed during a period of high stress, Shelton said.

“You’re trying to stay in your home, you’re trying to navigate your way in the pandemic,” Shelton said. “And then you are being asked to go through the formal process of an eviction.”

Eli Barrish, who leads a COVID-19 task force at the advocacy group Texas Housers, said the moratorium remains a powerful tool. He pointed to the apparent decrease in eviction filings across the country, but also noted that people could still be getting displaced without a legal proceeding.

“The moratorium is providing a strong barrier to eviction filings in the first place,” Barrish said. “There’s no way to know how many unofficial evictions are taking place and it is something that should keep us all up at night.”

And as useful as the order may be, it does not address the debt many renters have accumulate­d and will have to pay off eventually, Barrish said.

The state’s rental assistance program and other local programs to offer rental assistance offer hope, he added.

“It’s an addition to the moratorium,” Barrish said. “After all, the moratorium is not paying off anyone’s debt.”

 ?? Jon Shapley / Staff photograph­er ?? Alain Cisneros, an activist with FIEL Houston, distribute­s flyers with informatio­n about evictions.
Jon Shapley / Staff photograph­er Alain Cisneros, an activist with FIEL Houston, distribute­s flyers with informatio­n about evictions.

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