Millions of Texans could be shielded from evictions under new Trump administration order

Survey: 39% of renters in Texas weren’t certain they could pay rent in August

A protester outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston on Aug. 21. (Credit: Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune)

The federal government on Tuesday announced a nationwide eviction moratorium designed to protect renters from losing their homes until the end of the year. The order could keep millions of Texans from being evicted.

Housing advocates had been calling for such broad protections since the start of the pandemic. A previous measure, which expired in July, only stopped evictions in homes that were backed by federal loans.

The new order, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and set to be published on Friday, says that COVID-19 is a “historic threat to public health” and that eviction moratoriums can facilitate quarantining.

“I want to make it unmistakably clear that I’m protecting people from evictions,” said President Donald Trump in a White House press release.

In Texas, advocates for renters applauded the order but said more protections are needed, and representatives for landlords expressed concern about its potential impact on their businesses.

Rent, typically one of the largest items in any household’s budget, has become one of the top worries of Texans who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. According to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 39% of renters in Texas weren’t certain they could pay their rent in August. Most eviction moratoriums enacted during the pandemic’s initial blow to the economy have expired.

A provision included in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act expired in late July. But that measure only delayed evictions for tenants in federally backed housing. The new order from the CDC is more extensive, protecting most renters who expect to earn no more than $99,000 in annual income in 2020 or $198,000 if filing a joint return.

“The prior moratorium that Congress adopted only covered tenants in certain federally backed properties. Less than half of renters were covered by the prior protection,” said Heather K. Way, director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas Austin. “This order covers all renters that meet an additional criteria. There are no limits in terms of the type of housing.”

Tenants will have to provide a declaration to the landlord stating that they meet all the requirements in the order, including that they fall within the income limit and that they tried to get any available government assistance for rent or housing. They will also have to state that they have been unable to pay rent due to loss of income, work or health expenses, and that they might be at risk of homelessness or doubling up if they are evicted.

Finally, renters will have to state that they are using their “best efforts” to pay rent on time. Tenants can face criminal charges for false statements in the document.

“This applies to most tenants. They should begin communication with their landlords to enjoy their protections under this order,” said Zoe Middleton, Southeast Texas director of the advocacy organization Texas Housers. Middleton added that it is important to know that this order is not automatic and that it doesn’t allow people to stop paying rent.

There are no statewide numbers on evictions, but data from The Eviction Lab, a research center based at Princeton University, shows that they have increased in cities like Houston and Fort Worth since local and national moratoriums ended. An exception is Austin, where justices of peace have agreed to not hear these kind of cases. Yet evictions remain below pre-pandemic levels, despite that 3.3 million Texans have applied for unemployment. Researchers said that the stimulus check, unemployment benefits and rent assistance programs have helped.

Housing advocates also warned that more action is needed, including rent relief.

“This action delays but does not prevent evictions. Congress and the White House must get back to work on negotiations to enact a COVID-19 relief bill with at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told The Washington Post.

Both legal experts and landlord representatives also stated other concerns about the new order.

“There's a lot of subjective criteria that could be used against renters that are trying to utilize this order,” Way said. “For example, they have to show they used their best efforts to get any rental assistance that it’s available, but what does that mean?”

David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association, said that the organization is still analyzing the order and that evictions are always a last resort.

“How all the details work out and what means in real life is something that we are going to have to see,” Mintz said.

Mintz added that it is yet to be seen the impact the order will have on landlords, especially owners with fewer properties, who are “already working on smaller margins” and “still have to pay their bills, their employees, their taxes.”

“The real focus needs to be on making sure we have robust rental assistance programs for renters in need,” Mintz said.

Disclosure: David Mintz and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.