Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect information about a proposed Dallas city ordinance addressing evictions.
At the beginning of today’s (teleconferenced) City Council briefing, a succession of speakers took to the virtual mic to raise concerns about evictions. It is the first of the month, and many Dallas residents find themselves newly out of work. If they fail to pay rent on time, they may find an eviction notice on their door today — at a time when we have all been ordered to shelter-in-place to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of the speakers urged the city to vote on an ordinance to temporarily ban evictions, even though Dallas County, as Shawn reported yesterday, has already placed a moratorium on evictions through May 19.
Still, the concern voiced at today’s Council session underscored the heightened anxiety and confusing circumstances facing those most impacted by the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The availability of public assistance and the status legal protections seem to shift daily. What are the current protections and services available for those who can’t pay rent this month?
First off, financially stretched residential renters can breathe a momentary and measured sigh of relief. Because of a couple overlapping state and local measures enacted in response to COVID-19, no Texan can be legally evicted form their homes if they don’t pay rent today. First off, as lawyer Mark Melton outlined in a post on Facebook, landlords have no legal standing to enforce evictions regardless of whether they place a notice on residents’ doors demanding they vacate.
Even in normal circumstances, in order to evict a tenant, landlords must file suit, and the case is then heard by a Justice of the Peace. But on March 19, the Texas Supreme Court decided that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no eviction cases heard in the state of Texas until April 19. Dallas County extended that moratorium until May 19. That means no Dallas County resident can be legally evicted from their homes until then.
But that doesn’t mean landlords won’t post notices, or frighten or bully residents. However, even if a landlord changes your locks, Melton says, they are required to give you a phone number to call, and if you call them, they are required to allow you back into your rental unit within 2 hours — even if you have outstanding rent. It is important that renters understand that right. The rules are different for commercial tenants, which is one of the reasons Dallas city council member Adam Bazaldua proposed a city ordinance that would extend eviction protections to small business owners and Dallas residents who live in sections of the city that are not in Dallas County. Bazaldua’s proposal was sent to the city’s new Ad Hoc committee on COVID-19 Human and Social Recovery and Assistance for consideration.
There is the potential for a ripple effect here. Landlords may have notes to pay on their properties, and some might not have cash on hand to cover their loan payments if they don’t receive a significant portion of their monthly rent from tenants. But the intention of the eviction delay is to allow for some stability while the newly unemployed wait for their federal stimulus checks to arrive and unemployment benefits to kick in.
And that may take awhile. The IRS said earlier this week that it hopes to begin processing individual stimulus payments within three weeks. Unemployment benefits may take even longer. The Texas Workforce Commission is currently overwhelmed. The commission held a conference call with state legislators and staff this morning in which they announced their intention to expand their capacity to process claims. They are partnering with two third party call centers to handle the volume.
According to State Rep. Erin Zwiener, those call centers will add an additional 300 operators. That’s in addition to the 200 employees the TWC transferred to handle calls last week and the 250 employees they are transferring to operator duties this week. They also plan to emergency hire 100 more. That’s around 850 new unemployment claim operators added in the span of two weeks to handle the sudden surge of volume — and the commission is still swamped. TWC is urging anyone who is checking on a status of claim to log on to the website during off-peak hours (10 p.m. to 8 a.m.) because the commission’s servers are overloaded. The average turnaround time between when an application is filed and when an applicant receives benefits is 21 days.
Melton is hearing from tons of worried people who are having difficulty navigating the TWC for the first time.
“The website keeps crashing and the phone lines are so busy most people can’t get through to even apply,” he says.
To help assist people struggling with unemployment or rental issues, Melton has recruited around 60 lawyers who are volunteering to offer legal advice and assistance to anyone who reaches out to them via this email address.
“It’s crazy town out there,” Melton says. “I’ve probably personally talked to over 250 people so far. The stories are heartbreaking.”