Bryon Patterson entered a towering, red brick building on Preston Street in downtown Houston a few days before Christmas. He took an elevator to the second floor and sat in the back of a windowless room, watching as a judge, Steve Duble, worked his way through his 9 a.m. eviction docket. Patterson had never faced eviction before and had no idea what to expect. 

Patterson moved to Houston from his native Chicago in 2019 in search of “better opportunities, better living,” he says. He got a job as a customer service representative at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and worked out of his apartment in Midtown Houston, next to a light rail stop and walking distance from bars and restaurants. Things were going well until August, when he got laid off. Patterson picked up a part-time bartending gig while he looked for work, but the bartending money didn’t go far. By November, when he still couldn’t find full-time employment, he fell behind on rent and his landlord, a property management company, filed to begin eviction proceedings. 

Most evictions are decided in a matter of minutes, and tenants typically do not have representation. But unbeknownst to Patterson, he had come to court during the first weeks of a new program aimed at addressing a growing eviction crisis in Houston. A few minutes after he arrived in court, proceedings started to go differently than they normally do. An aide tapped Patterson on the shoulder and suggested he return to the lobby. There, he met Loreta Kovacic, a purple-haired former concert pianist who had been hired a few weeks earlier as a court facilitator, a new position that had just been introduced in two Houston justice of the peace courts. Kovacic told Patterson that he might qualify for free legal assistance. After a quick intake interview with a paralegal at Lone Star Legal Aid, Patterson met with a lawyer named Eric Kwartler, who decided to take his case. 

Patterson was one of thousands of renters facing eviction in Houston in December. Since early 2022, the number of tenants being confronted with losing their homes has skyrocketed. In Harris and Galveston counties last year, eviction filings were roughly 50 percent higher than the pre-pandemic average, according to the University of Princeton’s Eviction Lab. In 2023, one of every ten renters in the city, representing more than 84,000 households, had an eviction filed against them. Eviction Lab’s data doesn’t include how many tenants win their cases, but even an eviction filing that doesn’t result in a judgment against the tenant can stain their rental history, making it much more difficult to find housing in the future. 

Against this backdrop, judges have begun reconsidering how eviction cases are processed. In the fall of 2019, Duble was working as an independent civil litigator when his daughter’s friend—a member of the Houston Tenants Union—asked him to help represent several families facing eviction. The day he spent in court was eye-opening. “There were hundreds of people at the courthouse for their eviction proceedings and there wasn’t anybody there trying to connect them with help,” he says. “And I thought, what a missed opportunity. I understand people need to be evicted sometimes and evictions are sometimes necessary. But I thought it was a total lost opportunity to try and really help people who are in desperate need.”

COVID-19 changed how courts—and cities—considered eviction. As millions of Americans lost their jobs, experts predicted a “tsunami” of evictions after pandemic-era eviction moratoriums lapsed. A decade ago, many judges would have considered it a challenge to a court’s neutrality to allow tenant advocates and legal aid into a courtroom, according to Samira Nazem, a lawyer who directs the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Initiative. The monumental task of distributing nearly $50 billion in federal COVID rent relief forced courts to adapt. (It was only in 2021, as part of a COVID-19 emergency order, that the Texas Supreme Court required judges to allow legal aid into their courtrooms.) “I think we’ve seen a real evolution in thinking about what courts can do,” Nazem says. 

Duble campaigned for justice of the peace in 2022, promising to reduce evictions through diversion programs. As he was campaigning, evictions began to spike in Harris County. By then, most of the money in Houston and Harris County’s emergency rental assistance program had been spent or obligated. And rent had started to creep upward. “We never really saw the so-called tsunami of evictions after the moratorium ended,” says Adam Chapnik, a researcher at Eviction Lab. “Instead, we’ve been seeing kind of this mudslide of inflation just pushing renters to their limits.” 

After Duble was elected, he applied to the NCSC’s four-year, $11.5 million grant program. The nearly $300,000 grant from the nonprofit, which focuses on improving the administration of justice in state courts, covers Kovacic’s full salary for a year and half of it in the second year, as well as a full-time facilitator in Judge Dolores Lozano’s courtroom in Pasadena. NCSC’s Eviction Diversion Initiative began in 2022 and has funded facilitators in 22 courts in sixteen states and Washington, D.C. 

“There’s been this conventional wisdom that by the time tenants come into court, it’s too late to do anything,” says Nazem, who observed Duble’s court before Christmas. Instead, the eviction diversion program tries to use a court appearance to connect tenants with resources. Several courts in the program have started postponing hearings in front of a judge until a tenant gets matched with a social worker or meets with a court facilitator. “We really want to treat a trial before a judge as the last resort, when people have had every other opportunity to try to resolve their dispute without moving forward to trial and adversarial litigation,” she says. 

Duble’s courtroom offers an early look into how eviction cases can play out differently in Houston. He hears evictions every Wednesday. Kovacic, who moved to Texas from Croatia to get a doctorate in music from Rice, spends her days hovering in the lobby outside the courtroom, waiting to greet renters as they exit the elevator. She holds a printout of the day’s docket in her hands and talks to any tenant who wants to chat with her. Most do, she says. She asks everyone to share their story and listens intently while jotting down notes on an intake form.

On this day in December, Kovacic wore purple-tinted glasses and purple lipstick and a purple scarf pinned with a bright red cutout of an anatomical heart. She assisted dozens of tenants. One woman, facing eviction after a custody battle froze her bank account, inquired about what grant programs she might qualify for. Another man told her he knew his landlord: it was his brother. “Oh, so it’s a family affair,” she said, nodding thoughtfully. 

In the waning days of the year, there was little Kovacic could offer tenants besides access to a lawyer—Houston and Harris County’s joint rental assistance fund had closed days earlier. “Right now we don’t have rental assistance,” Kovacic says. “It’s a big downer.” But access to counsel is a significant step forward. According to a 2023 report by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, only 4 percent of renters nationally have legal counsel, compared to 83 percent of landlords. Tenants who have legal representation are far less likely to be evicted during a proceeding than those who don’t. 

This spring, the Harris County Commissioners Court awarded $4 million to two groups to provide legal aid in justice of the peace courts. In December, a day before Patterson showed up to court, the commissioners voted to double that amount, allocating an additional $4 million in eviction defense funding to be used this year. Together, the Eviction Defense Coalition, which includes Lone Star Legal Aid, and the Neighborhood Defender Service will have lawyers in all sixteen justice of the peace courts that cover Harris County.

While Patterson waited to talk to Kwartler, Kovacic chatted with him, going through her list of resources. She told him he might be able to get help paying his utility bill from Baker Ripley, a Houston-based nonprofit. Soon after, Duble called Patterson’s case, and Kwartler stood next to him in front of the bench. A property manager at Patterson’s complex, Mid Main Lofts, attending the hearing virtually, reported that Patterson owed $3,492 in back rent.

It appeared a fairly cut-and-dry case, until Kwartler reported that, according to the Harris County Appraisal District, the owner of the property in question was Home Direct LP, not Mid Main Lofts, the entity that had filed the eviction. Duble looked at Kwartler’s phone and then told the landlord that the case would be abated until the company could prove it owned the property, resetting the case for January 9. The delay was procedural—one only a tenant with a lawyer would know to take advantage of—but it’s one that gave Patterson more time to figure things out.

Over the coming year, NCSC will collect data on case outcomes like Patterson’s to help judges make the pitch to their municipalities for ongoing funding when the grant program expires. “These aren’t very expensive programs to operate,” Nazem says. “We want to have the data that shows that we’re increasing engagement in the court process. More tenants are showing up, people are having a better experience in court.”

Duble intends to ask for funding from Harris County to make Kovacic’s role a permanent position, not just in his courtroom but potentially county-wide. “I envision more positions like this where we’re not just focused on eviction, but focused on connecting people coming to our court for all sorts of things with resources,” he says. (Representatives in Harris County’s office of court management and Lina Hidalgo, the county judge, didn’t respond to interview requests.) 

Patterson left the courtroom, palpably relieved. “That’s the goal I was reaching for, to get more time so I can figure things out from there,” he says. “I’m just glad they got me through the holidays.” Kwartler promised to call him in a few days.

On January 9, at the rescheduled hearing, the case was dismissed after Kwartler presented evidence that the plaintiff in the lawsuit was not the owner of the property. “Nothing will prevent them from filing a new eviction, but it does give him time,” Kwartler says. “And time is the name of the game with a lot of this stuff.”