Proposed law would kill protections for renters facing eviction in Dallas and around Texas
A bill is moving through the Texas Legislature that would make it illegal for cities or counties to protect renters from eviction.
If passed, the legislation would kill a handful of local ordinances, including one in Dallas, that give renters more time to catch on rent before losing their home.
The legislation — introduced by Rep. Shelby Slawson of Stephenville in the House, and in the Senate by Brandon Creighton of Conroe — has the backing of the Texas Apartment Association and other lobby groups and landlords. But it’s drawn the ire of tenants’ rights and anti-poverty advocates, as well as city officials who want to be able to respond to local conditions with local solutions.
Proponents say the legislation is necessary to avoid “patchwork” of eviction rules that would challenge landlords with properties across multiple cities, as well as justice of the peace courts that adjudicate eviction cases.
“We believe that it’s important to have consistent regulations about how you deal with the eviction process across Texas,” said David Mintz from the Texas Apartment Association, which represents landlords.
Opponents say the bill is designed to preserve an eviction process that favors landlords by banning city and county efforts to address rising eviction rates brought on by sharp rent increases, high inflation, and the end of safety net spending and protections that helped many vulnerable Texans during the pandemic.
“[Landlords] just want it to be as easy as possible for them to evict a tenant,” said Mark Melton from the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center.
The cost of evictions are severe, and well documented in research. Evictions worsen health problems, are psychologically scarring, increase homelessness and make it harder for people to maintain steady jobs. And consequences aren’t borne equally, either: Evictions disproportionately impact communities of color, women, and families with young children.
The Senate-passed measure is now in the House Business & Industry Committee, where it is awaiting a hearing. It’s unclear if it will run the rest of the legislative gauntlet to become law before the legislature adjourns at the end of May.
This is one of many bills being considered by state lawmakers that would constrain local governments. The legislature is run by Republicans, but the biggest cities are largely run by Democrats.
The eviction-related bill, Senate Bill 986/House Bill 2035, bans cities or counties from adopting or enforcing any “ordinance, order, or other measure that prohibits, restricts, or delays [the] delivery of a notice to vacate” or the filing of an eviction lawsuit.
At least four cities would see local ordinances nullified under the legislation: San Antonio has an ordinance requiring landlords to give tenants information about their rights and resources when presenting the tenants with a notice to vacate, the first step in the eviction process.
It would also kill so-called “right to cure” ordinances in Dallas, Austin and San Marcos, which give renters more time to pay rent before their landlord can evict them.
“If you’re behind on your rent, a right to cure simply means that you have the right to pay your rent [and late fees] and not get evicted. That’s it. And we are one of only five or six states that don’t have that law,” Melton said.
Under Texas law, no such right exists. In many cases, once a renter misses a rent payment, a landlord has all the legal grounds he needs to proceed with an eviction, even if the tenant tries to pay the following day. The landlord still has to follow the process laid out in state law for filing the case and get an order from a judge before they can evict a tenant.
But during the pandemic, cities across Texas enacted rules designed to slow down eviction processes, at least for failure to pay rent. As the public health crisis subsided, some of those rules faded away. San Marcos, which has a 90-day cure period for COVID-related delinquencies, is the only city with a pandemic-era ordinance still in place, and it’s set to expire when the governor declares the pandemic over.
Austin is the only city with a permanent “right to cure” ordinance, requiring landlords to give tenants a seven-day notice before starting the eviction process.
Dallas has a temporary measure, crafted with input from both landlord and tenant advocates, and the city council is expected to vote soon on a permanent ordinance.
Under that rule, tenants who miss a rent payment would get seven days to pay their rent or respond to the landlord to explain they are trying to do so. If they respond, they’ll have another 20 days to make the payment in full, plus late fees.
Tenants only get that “right to cure” window once every lease year. If a tenant misses a second rent payment in the same lease year, the protections don’t apply.
Melton said the overwhelming majority of his clients are single mothers of color, he said, who can’t make rent on time because of a flat tire or because a sick child kept them from working. The local right-to-cure ordinance is meant to give them time to borrow money or pick up an extra shift to make up the shortfall, instead of being evicted.
A tilted playing field?
Texas law explicitly allows for cities to introduce ordinances like this that slow down the eviction process. That’s what the proposed legislation in Austin would end, amending state law to only allow for federal interventions.
Besides the Texas Apartment Association, the bill drew support from lobbyists representing home builders, realtors and conservative legal reformers.
The Texas Self-Storage Association also registered in support of the bill. It’s unclear why the group representing the storage unit industry is interested — the group’s director didn’t respond to an email from KERA News — but renters do need a place to put their possessions when they’re evicted.
David Mintz said the local right to cure measures challenge landlords, especially San Marcos’ temporary ordinance. He said they leave landlords to shoulder a greater financial burden to protect renters buffeted by larger, systemic drivers like poverty that the landlords didn’t cause.
Besides, he said landlords often try to work with down-on-their-luck renters.
“It costs more the more than the equivalent of a month's rent, typically, to get a new resident into a rental unit. So if you have someone who's renting from you and is a good resident, you want to try to keep them,” Mintz said.
While, certainly, many landlords work with tenants to avoid evictions, others don’t. In fact, Texas cities often lead the nation in eviction filings. Just in Dallas-Fort Worth’s four largest counties, more than 28,000 eviction cases have been filed this year.
A Child Poverty Action Lab study of three Dallas County eviction courts found most eviction cases were due to nonpayment of rent. The court observers found 90% of tenants did not have a lawyer to represent them. Individuals don’t have the same constitutional right to an attorney in civil cases as they do in criminal courts.
The presence of a tenant's lawyer made a huge difference in whether or not they were evicted: In cases where tenants didn’t have a lawyer, the judge ruled in favor of the landlord 79% of the time. In cases where the tenant did have a lawyer, the judge ruled in their favor of the landlord just 10% of the time.
Melton said that tracks with his experience leading the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center.
“That's a systemic problem," Melton said. “We take every single tenant that comes up to us that once representation and in the last 12 months, we've won 94% of the cases that we've litigated, and there’ve been thousands of them.”
While a host of renter protections have been proposed in the Texas Legislature this year — rules that would apply consistently all across the state — almost none have gotten any traction. And, while the state’s Republican leaders appear poised to put billions of dollars into the pockets of homeowners, none of the state’s more than $30 billion budget surplus appears to be heading to help renters.
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