Legal aid groups are warning about a wave of evictions this week, in spite of the extension of the CDC eviction moratorium. The warning follows new guidance for Texas Justice of the Peace courts which hear eviction cases.
Here's what happened
The CDC extended an eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent through June 30. The Texas Supreme Court’s 34th Emergency Order issued last fall - which adopted the federal rules and added state rules – expired on March 31.
The Texas Supreme Court did not extend its emergency order and the Texas Justice Court Training Center published new guidance for Texas Justice of the Peace Courts saying they do not have to enforce the CDC order, but the courts can advise landlords they could face a federal penalty for moving forward with an eviction for nonpayment of rent while the CDC order is in place.
The guidance says the CDC order does not explicitly direct courts to enforce the moratorium. The guidance says, in part, “Instead, it directs landlords to not evict tenants that are covered by the moratorium. It also provides civil and criminal penalties for landlords who violate the moratorium, but that is a matter between the tenant, the landlord, and potentially a federal prosecutor. It is not a matter that a justice court can or should enforce in the absence of authority from the Texas Supreme Court.”
What does this mean?
“If a tenant now files a CDC declaration, that JP judge is going to instruct the landlord that there is this moratorium going on, do you want to move forward knowing that you may face civil or criminal penalties?” explained K’Lisha Rutledge, an attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas.
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Rutledge said it shifts the decision about whether to proceed with an eviction for nonpayment of rent to the landlord.
“We're going to let you figure out what you want to do. Do you want to face a possible civil or criminal penalty and go forward? Or do you want to put the case on hold until after June 30 when the moratorium expires?” said Rutledge.
Rutledge said legal aid lawyers are concerned eviction cases that should fall under a federal moratorium will proceed anyway.
Mark Melton, an attorney who heads up a group of lawyers who volunteer to work with renters for free, said one of his clients is already facing eviction because of this week’s developments. He said the client’s eviction case was previously abated until this week. When she went to court on Friday, he said the judge allowed for the eviction case against her to proceed even though the CDC moratorium is in place through June 30.
Melton said his group, Dallas Evictions, is working to help connect renters to rental assistance programs. But some are taking weeks to process the applications. He’s concerned tenants will end up homeless before the rental assistance comes through.
Rutledge also says clients should push forward with applications for rental assistance and eviction diversion.
You can find information about the Texas Eviction Diversion program here.
The state is taking applications for rental and utility assistance through the Texas Rent Relief program.
If you need legal help, contact Legal Aid of Northwest Texas or Dallas Evictions, a group of volunteer lawyers who are working with tenants for free.
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