First Results of the CDC Eviction Moratorium in Houston

The CDC eviction moratorium is the main federal policy to reduce housing displacement during the pandemic. It took effect on September 4, 2020 and remains authorized through the end of March 2021.

When applied, the moratorium can be a powerful force to pause an eviction. The criteria to qualify are pretty broad. Landlords must make their tenants aware of the policy. Some constables even include a sample affidavit when they deliver an eviction notice.

But the CDC eviction moratorium has a some flaws, too. It gets applied on a case-by-case basis, and only after someone submits the right paperwork. In other words, someone has to activate the protections under the moratorium. It is not automatic. In the data we reviewed, fewer than 5% of tenants had legal counsel to help them.

Given these strengths and weaknesses, is the CDC eviction moratorium working? It’s a tough question. To find answers, I collected and analyzed data from the Harris County Justice of the Peace Court. Then I spent several weeks verifying the results.

Like everything about evictions, this is a complex story to tell. Approximately 16% of potentially eligible cases had a CDC declaration. Most of those tenants have been able to stay in their homes. But there is a lot of room for improvement. This post contains our point-in-time results.

Keep in mind: this is a moving target. Some of these cases are still pending. Every day, there are dozens of hearings in Harris County. That presents a lot of new opportunities for tenants to make a CDC declaration. The statistics in this article are current as of January 25, 2021. At the end of February, we will update these numbers to include all cases filed in 2021.

What is the CDC eviction moratorium?

Since March 2020, there have been several policies designed to reduce evictions. These policies exist at the federal, state, and local levels. They began in March 2020, right when COVID-19 was beginning to spread.

In Texas, the Texas State Supreme Court halted eviction proceedings from March 19 to May 18. In other words, there were no hearings taking place. But the court still accepted case filings. During that time, there were over 1,500 eviction cases filed in Harris County.

Around the same time, the United States Congress passed the CARES Act. This prohibited eviction case filings from certain landlords. The results are imperfect according to our narrow analysis and South Texas College of Law’s broad analysis.

The CDC eviction moratorium took effect on September 4, 2020. It fills in nationwide gaps where no local eviction prevention policies exist. The CDC moratorium relies on a claim of COVID-related hardship. This can delay the eviction case on the docket, or it can prevent the execution of a writ. But it’s not automatic. The tenant must attest to meeting certain conditions:

qualifications for the CDC eviction moratorium courtesy of Lone Star Legal Aid
Criteria to qualify under the CDC eviction moratorium, courtesy of Lone Star Legal Aid. The tenant must meet every condition listed above.

Whatever the outcome, the CDC declaration buys time. The tenant can negotiate a payment plan with the landlord, or they can find a new place to live. And they can do this without the immediate threat of eviction.

How the eviction moratorium affected Houston

We analyzed 32,309 eviction cases filed in Harris County in 2020. We estimate there are another 689 sealed cases. We did not include sealed cases in our analysis.

Of those 32,309 cases, there were 10,997 cases that had a hearing since September 4. That’s the day the CDC moratorium took effect. It represents the first opportunity for a tenant to make a CDC declaration. About 96% of the CDC declarations we found had a hearing since September 4.

As of January 25, we found 1,754 CDC declarations from eviction cases filed in 2020. This includes 1,623 declarations made by the tenant. It also includes 131 declarations either made by the landlord, or the origin was unclear.

These declarations led to 1,065 cases with a CDC abatement, and 600 cases with a judgment, but no writ executed. There are many ways to classify these cases, and there can be overlap between the groups. I tried to isolate the key segments below, especially if you like to add up all the numbers.

There were also 91 cases with CDC declaration, no official abatement, and a delayed hearing. We don’t count these cases as abatements, but we do count them as CDC declarations.

About 16% of eviction cases had a CDC declaration. In these cases, the CDC moratorium buys extra time for those tenants to pay their back rent or find a new place to live.

Here’s a summary of what we found, with a reading guide in the captions:

Determining the size and scope of the analysis

Guide: we reviewed 32,309 eviction cases filed in 2020. Of those cases, there were 10,997 cases with a hearing between 9/4/2020 and 1/25/2021. There were 1,754 cases with a CDC declaration. This represents 16% of cases with a hearing since the CDC moratorium took effect.

What are the outcomes of cases with a CDC declaration?

Guide: Approximately 60% of CDC declarations led to an abatement. More than half of those cases are still active. About one-third of cases with a CDC declaration had a judgment. In these cases, the CDC declaration is often filed at the same time as the judgment, pausing the writ.

There is another way to view these statistics: the CDC moratorium paused 271+ imminent evictions, and delayed another 618+ more.

The table above does not provide details about every outcome. For example, a case with a CDC declaration can be dismissed without an abatement due to lack of jurisdiction. In that example, the case is counted in the overall CDC declaration total, but not in either of the two subgroups.

How did this break down by court?

Guide: 16% of cases had a CDC declaration. Yet the top 5 judges had CDC declaration rates greater than 25%, and the bottom 5 judges had rates less than 10%. This seems to suggest that the judge makes a difference. This variation could have a simple reason, such as whether the judge takes a moment to educate the defendant about the CDC eviction moratorium.

Wanda Adams and Israel Garcia were elected in November 2020 and began in January 2021. These totals include their predecessors.

How can the CDC eviction moratorium improve?

Standardize data and make it available nationwide. Evictions happen at a local level, but this policy affects the whole country. In Harris County, we are lucky that the data is somewhat available. But one-third of US counties do not have eviction data. That needs major improvement. We should consider a federal eviction data standard, and incentives to local governments for compliance.

Incorporate CDC declarations into the housing support workflow. Rental assistance administrators should incorporate CDC declarations into their program requirements. Similarly, case managers should help their clients fill out the CDC declaration form.

Bullets, not boxes. A CDC declaration form requires the tenant to meet all the listed conditions. When it is a bullet list, the tenant only has to sign the form at the bottom. But when it contains boxes instead of bullets, the tenant must check every box. This can lead to problems:

An incomplete CDC declaration form with boxes, not bullets. Every condition must be true for the protections to take effect.

Sadly, Harris County Constables gave this “box list” form to tenants. Here is an example of a case document with a flawed template attached:

Provide a daily report of CDC declarations, case abatements, and case outcomes. Collecting and parsing this data is a challenge. Instead, the court could develop daily reports that show similar metrics as this blog.

Get ready for long term, widespread rental assistance programs. Although the CDC eviction moratorium buys time, it does not forgive debts. During these eviction delays, tenants are still responsible for paying rent. The underlying economic problems will not themselves resolve overnight. We will need widespread rental assistance programs for at least another year.

If you have questions about this analysis, please contact us.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors and Sketch City, and serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Houston. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.