At her eviction trial conducted via video conference on Sept. 23, Amanda Murray asked Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Ralph Swearingin Jr. for more time to give her landlord more than $4,000 in back rent.
Murray had just found a job as a medical assistant and thought she could maybe get the money before the beginning of October.
“Is that an option? I don't know,” the North Richland Hills resident said, hesitating. “I’m just, I'm at a loss.”
Swearingin pointed her toward rental assistance programs and suggested that she could negotiate a deal with her landlord after he issued his ruling. What the judge didn’t tell Murray was that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recently issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions for many Americans through Dec. 31.
At the end of Murray’s hearing — one of more than 60 that were scheduled in Tarrant County that day — Swearingin ruled in favor of her landlord and gave her one week to move out.
The information about the moratorium was on his court’s website. But Swearingin said in an interview after the hearing that the details on how to proceed during a hearing weren’t initially clear: the CDC order didn’t include a requirement to inform tenants about it. The judge also explained that the state’s code of judicial conduct limits how much information he’s allowed to give people with cases before him.
“It gets to a point where you could make an argument that you're advocating for one party or another,” he said.
The order was announced Sept. 4. But for two weeks afterward, justices of the peace applied it in a range of different ways, according to housing advocates who have been monitoring evictions and The Texas Tribune’s observations of hearings. Some justices of the peace explained in detail that tenants could be protected. But others, like Swearingin, didn’t mention it during the earlier hearings, although he says he is doing it now.
“I had no clue,” Murray said this week in an interview. “If I had known, maybe I could have got a deal.”
The CDC’s moratorium doesn’t automatically stop evictions. Tenants have to sign a declaration stating they have sought government assistance and tried to pay their landlords as much rent as they can, among other requirements. Landlords can still take tenants to court to contest the eviction protections.
Since Sept. 17, information about the moratorium and a copy of the declaration should be included in the paperwork Texans receive once eviction proceedings against them begin. But Murray’s eviction case began before the Texas Supreme Court ordered that those written notifications and declarations should be given to tenants.
According to Nelson Mock, a housing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the Texas Supreme Court’s order about giving tenants information on the moratorium left it to justices of the peace to ask tenants if they have signed the CDC order, even if their case was filed before the moratorium.
“It doesn’t compel the judge to say something, but it makes it very clear the judge can do it,” Mock said.
The Texas Justice Court Training Center has also allowed judges to apply the CDC protections to older ongoing cases and, according to Mock, tenants could even provide this declaration to the landlords at the last minute, when they are about to be removed from the home.
After clarifications from the Texas Supreme Court and from the Texas Justice Training Center, judges have more uniformly started asking if tenants have applied to be protected, according to housing lawyers and the Tribune’s observations of hearings across the state.
Swearingin said that since The Texas Tribune watched eviction cases in his court on Sept. 23, he’s begun asking tenants if they have filled out the CDC’s declaration and landlords if they have received the form. This week, Tarrant County courts have 346 eviction-related hearings scheduled, according to the court calendar.
“My responsibility is to make sure that this is contained in the citation that goes out, so people are informed about it,” Swearingin said last week. “But if I’m in the middle of a hearing, I don’t say ‘Did you know that you can file this declaration?’ That’s not my position. But I do ask if they have filed a CDC declaration.”
He said many tenants have successfully applied the moratorium to pause their evictions until Dec. 31.
No backup plan
Murray has had a rough few years. She went through a divorce, her father died and her hours at a medical office were cut during the pandemic. When she fell behind on rent, she said that she tried to get a payment plan, but the property managers wanted the lump sum.
After last month’s ruling, Murray was planning to move out with her 12-year-old daughter last Friday. They’ve been living in the apartment for two years and they renewed their lease in May.
“I don’t have family to go to. I don’t have anybody. I’ve gone to friends, but when you want a lump sum of $1,700 nobody has that,” Murray said. “And I can’t get a loan.”
After an eviction ruling, tenants many times leave on their own, but some also appeal or remain on the premises until a constable is asked to enforce the eviction through what is called a "writ of possession." The management of the building had told her that they were already moving to file such a writ.
“I didn’t have any plan B,” Murray told the Tribune. “I spent all day on the phone with apartments, explaining that my credit wasn’t very good. The eviction is already on my record. Everyone was saying they could not work with me.”
But on Thursday night — after a Tribune reporter told her about the CDC moratorium — she said she was going to seek its protections.
“I went right away and printed it out. I sent a copy to the court and one to the apartment complex,” Murray said. “I’ve been in contact with a couple of assistance places, because I know that this is not stopping the eviction. It’s just putting it off.”
It’s unknown how many people had eviction hearings before Swearingin during which he did not mention the moratorium.
“I have no way to know the number off the top of my head, but it was a very insignificant number,” he said last Wednesday. “It wasn’t an obligation for me to ask it, but now that we have clarification, we ask for it.”
It’s also not known how many Texans facing eviction, like Murray, received their eviction citations before the CDC moratorium was published and the state’s top civil court required people to be notified about it.
“We are getting a lot of applications for legal assistance from people that have not heard of the CDC order and have been not told by courts about the CDC order,” Mock said.
Housing advocates and lawyers consulted around the state said that initially only a few judges informed tenants about the CDC order or asked them if they had signed the declaration needed.
“It’s a tough balance. The judge can’t show favoritism towards the landlord or the tenant’s side,” said Becky Moseley, housing attorney with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. “The judges also can’t give legal advice, so it’s a fine line that the judges have to apply individually.”
Evictions postponed, not canceled
In the court of Tarrant County Justice of Peace Mary Tom Curnutt on Sept. 23, the manager of a building in Arlington accused a tenant of not trying hard enough to make her payments and receive rental assistance.
“Did you reach out to any charities?” Curnutt asked, after the landlord said the tenant hadn’t made her payments since June.
“I’ve been looking at some organizations,” the tenant said.
Housing advocates have said that it can be difficult for tenants to prove that they “used their best efforts,” as the CDC order said, to pay rent and get rental assistance.
Curnutt then pored through e-mails between the landlord and the tenant and asked them questions about their exchanges. That’s how the justice of the peace found that the woman had actually applied for help from a fund run by the city of Arlington, but never heard back. That detail made the difference. Curnutt rejected the landlord’s attempt to evict the woman, meaning she can stay housed at least until Dec. 31.
“I will go ahead and determine that she is a covered person and this is just going to be put on hold for you all to have the opportunity to finish that funding,” Curnutt said, and then addressed the tenant. “Now the ball is in your court.”
Last Wednesday, Denton County Justice of Peace James R. DePiazza ruled in favor of a landlord and allowed an eviction to proceed, but told the tenant, who had not filled out the CDC’s declaration, that she still could try to seek the moratorium’s protection before she is kicked out.
But when the tenant asked if she could avoid eviction altogether by filling out the declaration and getting caught back up on rent by January, the justice of the peace’s answer highlighted how the moratorium only delays evictions, but doesn’t indefinitely prevent them.
“Not necessarily,” the judge replied. “The moratorium doesn’t do away with the judgment.”
That means that even if people successfully have proceedings stopped, they can still be evicted next year if landlords chose to pursue evictions again, even if they have since caught back up on payments.
Murray is currently waiting to see how her landlord will respond to her declaration. As of Monday, she hadn't heard back. They could contest it in court and then Swearingin would have to decide if Murray is eligible to pause the eviction. Even if she gets to stay, she wonders if she will be able to catch up with rent by the end of December.
“It’s going to take me a while to get back on my feet,” Murray said.
She said that her biweekly paycheck is going to almost completely go to rent from now on.
“It’s not that I can’t do it,” she said. “I just need the opportunity, I just need that chance.”