A scary new era for evictions in Harris County

As we approach the three-year anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re entering a scary new era for evictions in Harris County. Evictions aren’t just back to normal, they’re higher than ever before.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a sharp drop in eviction filings. Across the country, eviction filings fell by 50% or more in the first few months of the pandemic, according to Princeton’s Eviction Tracking System. Harris County experienced a similar trend, with the number of eviction cases dropping to just 14% of the historical average in April 2020.

This shift in the eviction landscape was largely due to new policies and interventions. In March 2020, several states and cities, including Texas, temporarily halted evictions to keep people housed during the economic downturn. Additionally, the CARES Act was enacted to protect renters, prohibiting evictions at properties with federally-backed mortgages. Later in the year, the CDC also implemented an eviction moratorium that allowed renters to request a temporary stay in the eviction process.

Rental assistance was also critical. Through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, the Federal government provided states and cities rental assistance to keep people housed and cover the back rent owed to landlords. Harris County and the City of Houston partnered together to implement the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and distribute over $311 million in rental assistance to more than 75,000 families.

By 2022, however, the policies and money that kept many renters housed were largely gone. And without those protections and support, the number of eviction filings in Harris County went up – and not just back to their pre-pandemic levels, but far beyond them. 

Before the pandemic, Harris County experienced around 55,000-60,000 evictions filed in a given year. The number of filings was increasing between 2017 and 2019. But the pandemic saw a dramatic reduction in filings in 2020 (49%) and 2021 (47%). By 2022, however, that number shot back up to almost 80,000 evictions filed, surpassing pre-pandemic averages.

Additionally, the number of eviction filings in Harris County exceeded pre-pandemic historical averages in every month of 2022. The number of filings as a percentage of the 2018-2019 average was below normal in 2020 and 2021 but increased significantly above pre-pandemic averages starting in January 2022 through the end of the year (109%-171%).

Furthermore, data from the Eviction Lab shows that Harris County’s eviction surge is unique among other US cities. While some cities like Austin, TX and Milwaukee, WI returned to normal eviction rates in 2022, and others like New York City and Richmond, VA stayed below average, Harris County had the third-highest eviction filing rate (relative to pre-pandemic averages) compared to other cities with available data. Only Las Vegas, NV, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN had higher relative filing rates.

What can we do about evictions?

Through our work with judges, lawyers, policy advocates, and housing specialists, we’ve encountered a lot of good ideas that can slow down or even stop evictions. Here are just a few:

  • Extend and support rental assistance programs. People are still suffering economically because of the pandemic, and more help is needed as pandemic aid ends. The Texas Rent Relief Program recently announced that it is accepting new applications for rental assistance (up to $96 million). This is good news for renters facing eviction right now. Harris County and Houston should continue to build on their collaborative approach to rental assistance programs to help renters now, as well as in the future during other public health crises or natural disasters.
  • Fully fund the right to counsel in eviction cases. Several cities across the country, like New York City, Detroit, and San Antonio, have created laws to give renters a lawyer if they can’t afford one in eviction cases. In Harris County, people don’t automatically get a lawyer in eviction cases. With so many evictions happening and renters getting very little time in court, having a lawyer is important for fair outcomes. Fortunately, Harris County is taking steps to address this with a new $4 million investment in legal help for eviction cases. According to local advocates, however, these funds are not enough to cover full right to counsel. 
  • Change the way eviction courts are organized. As we wrote about late last year, Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of the Justice of the Peace Courts in 50 years, which means some courts have a lot more cases than others. This makes it harder for renters facing eviction to get justice. Redrawing the boundaries would help more people access the courts fairly.
  • Call your Texas representative and urge them to reject attempts to prevent future eviction moratoria. Some Texas lawmakers have filed a bill, H.B. 2035, that would prevent local governments from passing an ordinance or regulation that “prohibits, restricts, or delays” any part of the eviction process. This would make it much harder for local governments to help people in crisis.

Even as many people want to move past the pandemic, these statistics are a sobering reminder that the pre-pandemic world of evictions wasn’t very good, and the future looks downright scary.

David McClendon

David is a sociologist, demographer, and data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow him on Twitter and find his full bio on LinkedIn.