First Results of the CDC Eviction Moratorium in Tarrant County

The CDC eviction moratorium is the latest in a patchwork of policy solutions designed to prevent evictions. Since the pandemic began, there have been an unprecedented number of new housing policies across the country at all levels of government. But an eviction moratorium does not mean that evictions have stopped. This article analyzes the impact of the CDC eviction moratorium on Tarrant County, Texas.

Tarrant County encompasses Fort Worth, Arlington, and other North Texas cities. It had some of the highest eviction rates in Texas prior to pandemic. As the CDC moratorium gets extended again, I wanted to know how the CDC moratorium affects Tarrant County eviction rates, and how it compares to historical trends.

It’s important to understand the CDC moratorium in the context of other housing policies. Early in the pandemic, the CARES Act provided initial relief through a stimulus payment. Tenants could use that money to pay their rent. The CARES Act also provided some eviction protections for renters, but those protections were unenforceable. As a result, many states stepped up their eviction protections temporarily. In May 2020, more than 24 million renters lived in states with strong eviction moratoria.

By September 2020, the stimulus payment was gone and many of these temporary moratoria had expired. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in and issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions, allowing renters at risk of eviction who met certain criteria to have their cases abated or postponed. Originally, the CDC moratorium expired at the end of 2020. But it has received several short extensions, usually within days of expiring. Currently, it is valid until June 30, 2021.

For most renters in Texas, the CDC moratorium has been their only protection in place since September. Our analysis of Harris County evictions filed in 2020 found that the CDC moratorium affected 16% of potentially eligible cases. When the CDC protection was invoked, it was effective at delaying the eviction. But it was underutilized by renters, in part because 95%+ of eviction defendants did not have a lawyer. In some cases, the CDC declaration was ignored by landlords and the courts.

Overview of evictions in Tarrant County

For the past year, we’ve been collecting court records on eviction filings in Tarrant County and other Texas counties. Since March 15, 2020 there have been over 11,500 eviction cases filed in Tarrant County. That’s roughly 4 evictions filed for every 100 renter households.

The chart below shows the trend in eviction filings over time since January 2020. At the start of the pandemic, when the statewide moratorium was put in place, eviction filings dropped to near zero, averaging between 10-30 filings a week during that two month period. This is about 14% of the activity in the same months of 2018 and 2019.

After the Texas moratorium expired, Tarrant County eviction case filings rose to 51% of the historical average. Since September, eviction case filings have increased to 57% of the historical average.

Regardless of the policy in place, these numbers show a significant drop in eviction cases, with the exception of the last two weeks in August. Each week had above average case filing activity (104% and 208% respectively). This could signal a gap in policy that prompted the CDC moratorium, a rush to file eviction cases between the announcement of the moratorium (Tuesday, September 1) and the implementation of the policy (Thursday, September 3), and/or the effective implementation of the moratorium that prevented landlords from filing eviction cases.

Another item to note is that courts were closed during the week of Valentine’s Day, 2021 due to Winter Storm Uri.

Eviction rate drops, but is still comparatively high

Despite a steep drop in the number of eviction filings during the pandemic, Tarrant County has maintained a relatively high filing rate compared with other Texas counties we’ve been tracking.

An “eviction filing rate” is the number of evictions filed per 100 renter households. The chart below shows eviction filing rates before and during the first year of the pandemic for nine counties across Texas. Among this group, Tarrant County had the highest pre-pandemic filing rate (10.5%). Although that rate had the deepest drop in the group, the eviction rate was still among the highest.

There’s also been important variation in eviction filing rates within Tarrant County. The map below shows the eviction filing rates (since 3/15/2020) over the past year by census tract, with Justice of the Peace Court boundaries on top. The Justice of the Peace Court handles eviction cases, and cases are assigned to courts based on geography.

Justice of the Peace Court #8 (Judge Lisa R. Woodard) in southeast Fort Worth had the highest eviction filing rate over this period, with more than 6 eviction cases filed for every 100 renter households (6.44%). JP Courts #2 (Judge Mary Tom Curnutt) and #6 (Judge Jason Charbonnet) also had above-average filing rates of 4.4% and 4.2%. By contrast, there were much lower filing rates in JP Courts #3 (Judge William P. ‘Bill’ Brandt; 2.1%)  and #5 (Judge Sergio L. De Leon; 1.8%).

27% of eligible cases have a CDC declaration

The CDC moratorium is designed to prevent evictions during the pandemic as a public health measure. However, it does not prevent landlords from filing evictions. It can only prevent the courts from proceeding. While they wait, tenants still have to pay rent.

Another limitation of the CDC moratorium is that it is not automatic. It needs to be invoked. Tenants must complete an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, saying they meet the eligibility criteria.

One way to measure the CDC moratorium is to count the number of times it was invoked. Of all eligible cases – eviction cases that were either filed after September 2020 or were still undecided at that date – 27% had a CDC declaration listed in the case record.

Although not every tenant facing eviction will qualify for the CDC moratorium, the rate of CDC declarations depends on the judge. In JP Court #1 ( Judge Ralph Swearingen, Jr.), 54% of cases have a CDC moratorium declaration – by far the highest share of any court in Tarrant County. By contrast, only 17-18% of cases in JP Courts 2, 4, 5 have a CDC declaration during this period. We found a similar pattern in Harris County, which could reflect differences in whether judges educate defendants on their rights under the moratorium.

While this variance should be alarming, Tarrant County’s overall CDC declaration rate is still higher than other Texas counties we evaluated. In our Harris County analysis back in February, just 16% of potentially eligible defendants made a CDC declaration. And in Galveston County, only 11 tenants had made a declaration.

Outcomes of cases with a CDC declaration

Overall, there were 2,205 cases where a defendant made a CDC declaration. In 1,447 of those (65%), the case was dismissed, officially abated, or still pending. Landlords received a judgment in their favor in the remaining 758 cases (35%). Also, looking at the cases that were officially abated, there were 300 cases where the judge overturned the abatement due to the plaintiff contesting the declaration.

Case outcomes do not necessarily reflect the fate of the tenant. For example, a case can be dismissed for very different reasons. It can be dismissed because the tenant worked out a financial arrangement with the landlord to stay in the property, or it can be dismissed because the tenant already vacated the property, among other reasons.

However, case outcomes can tell us if the eviction is proceeding, and whether the CDC declaration had an impact. Landlords were more likely to receive a judgment in cases with no CDC declaration. The chart below shows outcomes for three types of cases: cases with a CDC declaration, cases with no CDC declaration, and cases that were filed and decided before the CDC moratorium took effect (dating back to 3/15/2020). In cases that pre-date the CDC moratorium, landlords/plaintiffs received a judgment 44% of the time – in 56% of cases, the case was dismissed or the defendant won.

At the same time, landlords were less likely to receive a judgment in eviction cases during the pandemic compared with previous years. In 2018, landlords received a judgment in 51% of cases filed. During the first year of the pandemic (3/15/2020 – 3/15/2021), landlords only received a judgment in 43% of cases filed, with 17% of cases with decisions still pending.

Together, the data paints a story of mixed success for the first six months of the CDC eviction moratorium in Tarrant County. On the one hand, when tenants make declarations, they are more likely to have their case postponed or dismissed. On the other hand, only 26% of tenants are making a CDC declaration in the first place, which limits the moratorium’s effectiveness.

What comes next for the CDC moratorium?

This week, the CDC extended their eviction moratorium with the current rules until June 30, 2021. Despite the fact that many people will not invoke this protection, it will still keep thousands of people in their homes as the pandemic continues.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that the CDC moratorium does not erase the money renters owe landlords. It merely postpones the due date. Tenants are still responsible for paying their rent in the interim. An analysis of eviction claim amounts in Houston, New York City, Phoenix, and Cincinnati found that the money tenants owe at the time of filing has been increasing over the past six months. In Houston, the claim amounts have nearly doubled.

In Tarrant County, there are nearly 700 renters who have made a CDC declaration and have successfully had their cases abated until after the moratorium expires. Another 1,300+ renters are awaiting a decision on the outcome of the eviction case brought against them. Hundreds more will likely be facing eviction by the time the moratorium is lifted.

One way to limit the number of evictions this summer is to give renters more time to pay their back rent. In Texas, landlords must provide tenants with a 3-day notice to quit if they’re more than two days behind on rent. Landlords can – but are not required to – allow tenants to pay the rent they owe during that small window of time before they file an eviction. Given the amount of money tenants are likely to owe in June, three days will not be enough. Austin and Dallas, for instance, have instituted grace period ordinances that require landlords to provide tenants with a 60-day window to pay the rent they owe.

More rental assistance is also needed to make landlords and tenants whole. Texas has instituted a rental assistance program but it is not meeting the moment. In its first month, the program only helped three renters. More than $45 billion in rental assistance funds from the American Rescue Plan are on their way to the states. We need to do a better job of connecting tenants and landlords to those funds as they become available.

For those renters who haven’t made a CDC declaration after being served with an eviction notice, more can be done to make them aware of their rights under the moratorium. Texas renters do not have a right to legal counsel and most renters either don’t show up or represent themselves. A bold step would be to give renters in Fort Worth a right to counsel, like Seattle and other cities recently did. Short of that, Justices of the Peace must do their part to make renters aware of the CDC moratorium and the opportunity it presents.

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.