Angela Hunt has lived in the same apartment complex in Fort Worth for the last eight years and has never been late on rent. She owns a small transportation service and had even managed to put some money into savings when her business was doing well. But next month, when her lease renews, her rent is set to increase by $230 to $1,440 a month. She’s no longer sure if she can afford it.
In the past few weeks, most of Hunt’s clients—hotels shuttling passengers to the airport, nursing homes that need to get clients to appointments—have canceled their contracts as the pandemic forces millions of Americans to stay at home as much as possible. The only one of Hunt’s vehicles that has seen any business is the hearse she owns. But even that has been a hard sell in the past few weeks: funeral homes have been advised to limit any memorials that would draw more than a handful of people. “My income is probably down 80 to 90 percent,” Hunt says. “I’m living off my savings and my trust in God. At the end of the day, will I be the one getting evicted from my apartment?”
As the state comptroller forecasts that the unemployment rate in Texas will soon hit 9 percent, housing advocates across the state expect to see a parallel increase in eviction cases as well. The federal government has placed a four-month moratorium on evictions from certain properties backed by federal mortgages, protecting 28 percent of renters nationally, according to the Urban Institute. The Texas Supreme Court has also temporarily halted eviction proceedings across the state until April 30. Dallas County has extended that moratorium through May 18; in Austin, a city council ordinance gives renters sixty additional days to come up with April rent before landlords can post a notice to vacate, which is the first step in filing an eviction.
But when those ordinances expire, eviction courts might go back to business as usual. And for Texans who live paycheck to paycheck, paying rent in a few months might still be tough. The state has the highest number of minimum wage workers in the nation, and 15 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line. In February, before layoffs associated with the coronavirus, a Texas Lyceum poll found that 64 percent of the state’s renters said it’s difficult to find affordable housing in Texas.
The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill that passed at the end of March is expected to put more money in the hands of Americans, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the loss in regular income. After Octavia, a Dallas-area mom, was laid off from her job at Planet Fitness, she was able to pay her $880 rent bill in April only with the help of last year’s tax refund. (Octavia asked to be identified only by her first name.) “For May 1st, I don’t know,” she tells me: she’s struggling to find available service jobs and facing difficulties in applying for unemployment benefits. “It’s impossible to get applications started for unemployment because there are so many issues with their phones and website—it’s like a joke. I keep hearing, ‘Oh, just apply for this money,’ but so is everyone else.”
Nearly 300,000 Texans applied for unemployment through the end of March, overwhelming the Texas Workforce Commission’s capacity. While Octavia’s rent is considered cheap for the area, it won’t be easy for her to come up with the money if her unemployment claim doesn’t come through by the first of next month.
“It’s a bottleneck that will explode,” says Nelson Mock, an attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who represents low-income tenants. In the past few weeks, TRLA has seen an increase in the number of unemployment-related housing issues brought to their offices, beyond their ability to take on cases. “This, I strongly suspect, is just the beginning.”
Texas lacks strong tenant laws that would protect renters in precarious situations under normal circumstances. The state has no regulations on fees that landlords can add on to base rent, nor an upper limit on security deposits. But the pandemic has made the dearth of protections even more apparent. While many states offer tenants the “opportunity to cure”—the ability to pay rent as late as thirty days in some places and not face an eviction notice—Texas offers no such protection to millions of renters.
To avoid a housing crisis during a public health emergency, housing advocates say, the state will need to adopt the types of aggressive tenant protections it’s never had: to start with, a statewide law allowing people to pay rent well beyond the first of the month. And if the crisis deepens, extraordinary measures might be needed, like a suspension of rent and mortgage payments altogether until the pandemic is over and people can go back to work.
If holistic statewide protections for renters aren’t enacted once the April moratoriums expire, it may be left up to individual landlords to decide whether they’ll accept late rent or deferred payment plans from tenants. In Dallas, the mayor has so far asked landlords to “have a heart” during the difficult months ahead.
“No one wants to evict their residents—it’s like having empty tables at a restaurant,” says Mark Hurley, the president of the Texas Apartment Association, the state’s main rental housing industry group. “We’re all in the same boat right now.” The TAA is recommending that landlords across the state work with tenants who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, offering deferred payment plans or reductions in rent. Hurley has done so at his own properties in San Antonio.
Some tenants across the state have received such offers. Nancy Spigener, a 59-year-old nursing student at McLennan Community College, in Waco, works part-time as a massage therapist to support herself, but two weeks ago the spa closed down. Even before that, her paychecks were shrinking as fewer clients, from whom she earned tips on top of her base salary, came in for scheduled appointments. Her landlord offered to eat half her rent. While it won’t be easy paying even the $400 instead of the full $800 she usually owes, it’s a much better situation, especially since Spigener, like most Americans, doesn’t have savings to draw on during an emergency.
Rent relief policies are certainly easier for large, corporate property management services. Camden Property Trust, in Houston, which leases more than 50,000 apartments across the United States, recently launched a $5 million emergency fund for residents who have lost their income due to the pandemic. But it can’t keep doing that forever, says Ric Campo, Camden’s CEO. “The world doesn’t turn without capital. A third of my revenue in Texas goes toward paying state property taxes, and I also have to pay my employees.”
Hurley points out that landlords who operate smaller companies, with smaller revenue streams, will still be on the hook for loans they may have taken out on properties and must also pay for upkeep, maintenance, and salaries for essential staff members. “People are talking about a rent holiday, but that’s not the right understanding,” he says. “The only way that our business can survive is if we use all the methods we’re legally allowed to collect rent. If it comes to it, yes, that means evictions if people don’t stick to their arrangements.”
Anticipating this, Sandy Rollins, the executive director of Texas Tenants’ Union, would much rather have a binding public policy set in place. “The mayor [of Dallas] is asking landlords to be nice, but I know from experience that’s not going to be enough,” she says. Some of the tenants the organization works with have received threatening letters implying that the landlords will come after tenants once courts reopen. Some offer vague details on deferred payment plans that can be drawn up at the discretion of the landlord.
Octavia isn’t sure how she can stay at home, feed her family, and keep paying rent. The bills won’t stop coming, even if her income has. That’s why she applied for a job at an Amazon warehouse, despite some concerns for her safety. “Anytime you leave the house, it’s a risk,” Octavia says. “But you still have to pay rent. It’s the worst time to be put out on the street.”