Op-Ed: How Justice of the Peace Courts Can Rectify the Harris County Eviction Crisis

by | Jan 24, 2022 | Houston, Opinion

Harris County has a slow-burning eviction crisis created by a lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages, and scant protection for the most vulnerable tenants. Even before the pandemic, eviction was the leading cause of housing loss in Harris County, with 111,038 renter households evicted between 2017–2019. Evictions hurt everyone. They are harmful to tenants, disruptive for landlords, and weaken the very structure of our communities and neighborhoods. Harris County can act as a leader in the state by thinking beyond the pandemic to create lasting solutions to reduce evictions and mitigate the harms of this crisis. 

The pandemic is making a bad situation worse for countless families and is pushing even more Houstonians into homelessness. In fact, 15% of Houston’s unhoused population cite the pandemic as a primary reason for their homelessness. While the CDC’s September 2020 eviction moratorium provided some relief, it did not stop evictions generally. The moratorium required tenants to specifically invoke the policy, meaning defendants had to go through the bureaucratic burden of researching the moratorium, filling out an affidavit, and filing it with the court. This created an accessibility issue—only 13% of defendants in Harris County were even able to access that policy. And in the three months after the CDC moratorium was lifted, eviction filings in Houston increased by 39%

The Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program also provided some relief for Houstonians. This program distributed $283 million in federal funding over the course of 2021 and is getting an additional $13 million from Treasury reallocations. However, the fact that this funding continues to run out quickly is evidence that more help is needed. As recently as the week of January 10th, Houston Landlords filed 2,040 eviction cases—13% above historical filing averages for January.

 (Image from eviction lab)

The problem has gotten this bad not only because of the economic effects of the pandemic, but also because Texas has some of the harshest policies in the nation for tenants, and renters have few options to protect themselves against predatory and exploitative landlords. Landlords are only required to give three days’ notice for eviction notices. Additionally, landlords are allowed to charge late fees at their discretion and judges aren’t required to seal eviction records, meaning that once someone has been evicted, it can become nearly impossible to find adequate housing. 

Despite the enormous ripple effects of eviction and the high social cost eviction creates, only about 4% of defendants in eviction cases have an attorney in Harris County. Even when tenants are able to secure legal representation, the law limits the factors that can be considered in an eviction case, which makes it difficult for tenants to fight retaliatory evictions. 

The Justice of the Peace (JP) courts are the first stop for eviction cases in Harris County. When someone takes a day off work to appear in court, they deserve to be heard, but a lot of the time, these courts are simply rubber-stamping evictions for landlords. Sometimes evictions are necessary, but landlords are not the clients of JPs. As the largest county in Texas with sixteen JP courts, we should be leading the charge in Texas to innovate solutions to reduce evictions as much as possible. But at the moment, JP courts are not doing enough to prevent evictions and help people access resources. Last year, only five of the sixteen current Justices of the Peace even submitted budget requests to increase their budgets for additional staffing or new programs such as eviction diversion.

Our JP courts can and should be transformed into community-centered courts that connect people to wraparound services, decrease evictions, and reduce the obstacles for tenants seeking relief. We can remove barriers to access by making big changes like allowing legal aid organizations to operate out of the court and having dockets outside of standard business hours, as well as small fixes like getting rid of dress codes and arbitrary codes of conduct, such as prohibitions against chewing gum or using a phone while you wait for your hearing.

The purpose of a court is to provide access to justice, not to demean or scold people who are at their most vulnerable. We need to re-envision how JP courts work to ensure that everyone, not just landlords, is given the full protection of the law and connected with the help they need. Harris County JP courts can and should be progressive model courts that strengthen our community and lead the way for the rest of the state.

Steve Duble is a progressive candidate for Harris County Justice of the Peace (Precinct 1, Place 2), running to decrease evictions through eviction diversion and increase transparency, accessibility, and equity. 

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