Proposed legislation tries to elevate tenant rights in Texas
Nearly 70,000 evictions have been filed across Tarrant County since March 2020, with those numbers continuing to trend upwards post-pandemic as housing prices continue to rise.
In response to the lasting effects of these evictions, especially seen in the aftermath of COVID-19 eviction memorandums, several bills protecting tenants’ rights were filed with the state Legislature ahead of the 2023 session.
“The pandemic really brought awareness to the problems with eviction and how, not just for the individuals it impacts, but for the larger community as well,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union. “We want to get across to decision-makers and policymakers the wisdom of doing this.”
The potential passage of these two bills is also a racial equity issue that was given additional visibility during the pandemic, said Ben Martin, research director with Texas Housers, a nonprofit organization that advocates for initiatives that support low-income Texans.
“We know that Black and brown individuals and families, especially Black women, are more likely to be affected than their white peers,” he said. “We just have such a greater understanding of why it’s important to keep low-income people housed. Anything that we can do to reduce evictions is going to have a really positive impact in terms of tenants’ rights.”
HB 673: opportunity to cure
House Bill 673, filed by Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, would give tenants an opportunity to cure their delayed rent payments before filing an eviction suit. In other words, landlords will be required to notify and allow tenants to pay outstanding rent or vacate before filing for an eviction.
Current state law gives tenants a maximum of just three days to pay delinquent rent but landlords can reduce that timeframe in their lease. This proposed bill would increase it to a minimum of seven days.
Several states already have a policy similar to this, which gives tenants a chance to avoid losing their housing and potentially becoming homeless. Oklahoma gives tenants 10 days to cure and an additional five days to vacate. The state of Mississippi gives tenants 30 days.
Rollins notes that this effort levels the playing field for tenants.
“It’s good public policy to not make it quite so easy to evict people so quickly,” she said.
Several Texas cities, including Austin, Dallas, and San Marcos, have passed ordinances in the past few years giving tenants those protections.
In late October, Austin City Council passed an ordinance that gave renters more time – seven days — to pay overdue rent before facing eviction. In Dallas, the city council is expected to vote on an ordinance in early 2023 that would give tenants at least 20 days to cure any lease violations.
“There are ripple effects, not just for the families who are involved in an eviction case but for the community as a whole. It’s just much more cost-effective to keep people housed than it is to let them fall into homelessness,” Rollins said.
Martin with Texas Housers said southern states like Texas tend to be property-right friendly, which doesn’t always benefit the tenant.
“In the context of landlords and tenants, that translates into the benefit of the doubt for landlords but not for tenants,” he said. “So what you end up with is very lightly enforced standards for landlords of rental properties.”
Opponents to such measures note that delaying the eviction process affects rental property owners, said David Mintz, vice-president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association, a nonprofit statewide trade association that advocates the Texas rental housing industry. The Apartment Association of Tarrant County is one of its local affiliates.
The goal, Mintz said, is to make sure the eviction process is consistent statewide. If rental income is delayed, he said, landlords can’t fulfill their obligations.
“That affects housing affordability. When rental income isn’t coming in for the property owner, they’re not able to meet their obligations to other residents. They are not able to have the income needed to take care of the property, provide amenities, pay taxes, pay other operating expenses, pay their bills, pay their lenders, pay their employer, and employees,” he said.
HB 511: sealing eviction records
House Bill 511, filed by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, would make eviction filings confidential if the case is dismissed, won by the tenant, or if the property in question is foreclosed.
Wu previously filed this bill in the 2021 regular session, but it did not make it out of its committee then.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report estimates 18.58% of individuals in Texas are experiencing homelessness. And in major urban areas like Tarrant County, that number could be as high as 51.7%.
Landlords often use tenant screening services to see if a prospective tenant has any eviction records or even a filing against them to weed them out which is unjust, said Martin of Texas Housers.
“Many landlords won’t rent to people with eviction so it just makes it more difficult to find stable rental housing in the future, even if you win your case or your case is dismissed,” Martin said. “Making it so that eviction records are sealed, especially in cases where tenants are not a victim or a case is dismissed is just a common sense thing to help tenants avoid this mark on their records that can haunt them for years to come.”
Both bills draw on policies that were already in place during the pandemic, both advocates said, which makes them hopeful that these proposed legislations would pass this session.
“These are common sense bills and we’re hopeful that our elected leaders will see them as the common sense bills they are,” Martin said. “These protections were in place (throughout the pandemic) and protections that go far further than anything that’s been proposed.”
Ahead of the 2023 session, where both the House and Senate are majority Republican, advocates of these bills know passing these bills will not be easy but they remain hopeful.
“These are uphill battles. It shouldn’t be so hard. But this has never been easy. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be easy,” Rollins said. “I would hope that policymakers would see the wisdom in enacting these types of measures. But when we’re talking about the Texas legislature, we were up against some powerful forces who probably don’t want these bills to pass.”
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