With Moratorium Lifted, Houston Becomes Largest U.S. City Where Evictions Can Resume
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tenants behind on their rent can be kicked out of their homes in Texas. The state has lifted its moratorium on evictions. Some Texas cities are taking additional steps to protect renters, many of whom have lost jobs because of the pandemic. Houston is not one of them. It's now the largest city in the United States where evictions can resume. Elizabeth Trovall of Houston Public Media reports.
ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Before COVID-19, life was good for Houston resident Bridgett Hewitt (ph).
BRIDGETT HEWITT: I was a happy grandma taking care of her grandchild and just going about my everyday living, doing what I do - wake up in the morning, say my prayers, drink my coffee.
TROVALL: Then coronavirus hit.
HEWITT: Everything got quiet. It's like my life stood still.
TROVALL: Hewitt talked to me over the phone from her apartment, where she lives alone. She used to make money babysitting her granddaughter and niece. That ended with COVID-19. And her $800 disability check doesn't cover her monthly rent of $900. She says her apartment manager warned her eviction notices are on their way.
HEWITT: Nobody needs to be stressed out whether they're going to have a place to live today and be homeless tomorrow. I can't think like that right now, you know? I can't think like that, and I don't want to think like that.
TROVALL: People like Hewitt are vulnerable now that the Texas Supreme Court lifted a ban on evictions this week. Attorneys who work with low-income clients are preparing for the worst. Dana Karni works for Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to low-income Texans. Karni expects more families on the streets in the months ahead.
DANA KARNI: And we anticipate that there will be a tsunami of evictions filed. I have no doubt about it. We are going to see homelessness.
TROVALL: Nationally, there's been a patchwork of protections in place for renters. Other statewide moratoriums are expected to expire in the coming weeks, and unemployment is through the roof. Shamus Roller is with the National Housing Law Project.
SHAMUS ROLLER: Forty percent of households under $40,000-a-year income lost a job in March. And that's just staggering to sort of, like, to try to get your head around what that means in practice.
TROVALL: Roller says there's still a federal moratorium on evictions through late July, but that only applies to rental properties with federally backed mortgages, and that's only a third of all properties. For now, moratoriums and government assistance, like expanded unemployment benefits, have kept evictions at bay in cities like Houston. But as these protections expire, experts say a wave of evictions is on its way. And with coronavirus spreading, Roller says these evictions create a public health risk.
ROLLER: Displacing people from their housing and sending them out looking for additional housing or sending them into homelessness is a danger for all of us.
TROVALL: In Houston, so many people applied online for the city's rental assistance program that it ran out of funding in just 90 minutes. Bridgett Hewitt was one of the lucky few who were able to submit an application, but she's still waiting for final approval. If the rent money doesn't come through, she expects to be forced out of her home.
HEWITT: I pray and hope that if I do, that I'll be able to get into a shelter or my daughters will open their doors to me - that they will open their home to their mom.
TROVALL: Hewitt, like many Americans, will be at the mercy of friends and family when looking for a place to live.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.