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More than 70,000 evictions have been filed in cities across the South since March 15, the day much of the country issued shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium intended to keep people housed through the pandemic hasn't been a catchall solution nor has it entirely prevented landlords or courts from evicting people. Still, in cities without local protections, it's the only safety net they've got.
Set to expire in just two weeks, a staggering 40 million Americans are at risk of losing housing if Congress doesn't act.
Houston, Texas, the South's largest city, accounts for one-fourth of the region's total eviction filings this year, with 18,000 as of mid-December. The housing crisis isn't new here, where many people take refuge in periods of transition—a first home in a new country, a place of refuge after a domestic crisis like Hurricane Katrina.
While the circumstances fueling the eviction crisis in Houston—immigration status, poverty, and failing policy—are not unique to this city, neither are the possible solutions spearheaded by organizers who are up against ineffectual local leadership and landlords soon to be cut loose from federal restrictions.
Once a week, members of the Houston Tenants Union canvass the old apartment complexes in Greenspoint where residents are in particular danger of eviction.
Tucked beneath the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the apartment buildings are in various states of disrepair, sometimes dating back to the '70s and '80s with scant renovations since. The general atmosphere is one of landlord neglect for the people who live here, who are often working low-wage jobs and call Greenspoint home during a period of crisis or transition.
Organizers are working to ensure tenants know their rights. With time running out before the CDC eviction moratorium is lifted in January, government officials, activists, and tenants are scrambling for solutions of all kinds, but few solutions seem without flaws—other than the obvious.
"Just cease all evictions," Houston Tenants Union member Matthew Loughran said. "Many families are just barely hanging on by a thread. They're worried about putting food on the table, along with keeping a roof over their head."
He and the other members of the Houston Tenants Union, founded in June 2019, are organizing tenants to leverage their collective power over their living situations. This could mean anything from holding landlords accountable for repaying deposits and improving living conditions on the property to arranging a rent strike to keep people housed. Come January, nothing's off the table.
"The tenants are in the driver's seat," Loughran said, explaining that each campaign is different. When tenants work together, he said, they hold more power over their situation. It's the goal of the Houston Tenants Union to make tenants feel enabled to use that power.
"We're not rich, we don't have deep pockets like landlords," Loughran said. "But obviously we have bigger numbers and more people working together."
Compared to nonprofits whose actions are more involved with lobbying for changes in policy or providing individualized aid, Loughran said the Houston Tenants Union and other democratically organized chapters in the Autonomous Tenants Union Network across the United States—including Florida, Kentucky, and other Southern states—focuses on direct action, giving tenants the capacity to fight "outside the courts" where long, expensive battles aren't always possible for people trying to maintain a basic right—a roof over their head.
While the policies nonprofits advocate for are invaluable to the fight to keep people housed, organizers are working around the critical need to inform, allowing tenants to feel like they have agency over their own situations.
Individually, people can feel out of control when facing eviction, but the truth is we're facing a collective humanitarian crisis.
And the response will require collective power.
Without a 'real social safety net'
In early September, two days before the CDC announced a moratorium on evictions to keep people housed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, CNN highlighted the evictions occurring in Houston. Houston was the largest city in the United States without a local moratorium and remains so today.
"It's my fault because I'm supposed to be the man of the house," said Israel Rodriguez, 24, who lived in an apartment with his girlfriend and their two kids until they were evicted. Shortly thereafter, viewers of that clip started a GoFundMe on their behalf, and then another.
The two fundraising campaigns raised more than $320,000 for Israel and other evicted families.
You've probably heard a story like this before—an uplifting tale of people buoyed by a viral fundraiser. But what about the thousands of other people facing eviction?
Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas Co-Director of Texas Housers, said GoFundMe campaigns individualize a systemic problem that predates the coronavirus. "There's always a place for compassion and community," Middleton said, but there's also a place for policy. "What you see in the absence of policy is an overreliance on charity."
The reality is most people won't have stories that go viral.
To Middleton, GoFundMe stories are "incomplete storytelling that, in my mind, dishonors the audience's intelligence," she said.
"It's what you do when you don't have a real social safety net."
For decades, evictions have affected workers in the United States at a higher rate than in countries like the UK, Denmark, or France. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1 in 40 renters in the US had been evicted at some point from 2000 to 2016.
Landlords in the United States have filed more than 160,000 evictions during the pandemic, 14 percent of which have been in Houston. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 1 in 4 renters with children (and 1 in 6 adult renters generally) were behind on rent in late September. Nearly half of children in Black households, 44 percent of children in Hispanic households, and 35 percent of children in white households in the United States in June and July were either living in a house behind on rent or where there isn't enough food to eat.
As the unemployment rate shows few signs of significantly decreasing, those numbers are expected to get worse in 2021.
When compared with other large cities, The Urban Institute recently found that, at 50 percent, Houston has a lower percentage of rent-burdened residents. As of 2016, Houston ranked 273 out of 274 cities on economic and racial inclusion, meaning lower-income residents and people of color have been historically excluded from contributing to and benefiting from economic prosperity. It's also the only major city in the United States without a grace period to stave off evictions and give tenants invaluable time to prepare for a move.
With more time to prepare, people have a better chance to pack their most meaningful possessions, find temporary housing, and prepare their children for a life-changing transition.
In Houston, when the sheriff shows up for an eviction, it's on such short notice, he might as well be setting their home on fire. The only thing to do is flee.
"We do not have an appropriately-funded housing department or health and community services department," Middleton said, because both are, in effect, outsourced to Catholic Charities or nonprofits like Baker Ripley.
Someone has to step in when communities lack the resources necessary to survive, and if it isn't the local government, it's a decentralized network of nonprofit organizations, each with different backgrounds, funding, and requirements to qualify.
They're doing the best they can, Middleton emphasized, but any nonprofit would struggle to function as a makeshift arm of the government.
"There's a bit of this noblesse oblige," Middleton said. "We're providing the capacity to do the thing that government is supposed to do… and in return, we don't criticize the mechanisms by which the government makes decisions."
The eviction explosion to come
The government was supposed to keep an eviction explosion during a pandemic in check.
The goal of the CDC eviction moratorium, enacted on September 4, was to limit who can be evicted and for what reasons, but ultimately it's fallen short.
For starters, the moratorium fails to prohibit late fees or interest, meaning tenant debt could increase by thousands of dollars; meanwhile, landlords are not required to notify tenants that they must fill out a declaration form—if they meet the qualifications—and give it to their landlord in order for the moratorium to even apply.
To Loughran, the loopholes in the fine print are part of the reason misinformation abounds.
The language of the CDC moratorium allows for landlords and judges to interpret based on individual situations, but to Loughran, a true moratorium would provide collective coverage for all tenants, no matter the situation.
The local government and nonprofit response to a failed moratorium has been rent relief.
Part of the logic behind local rent relief programs is to strike a balance between helping renters avoid destitution and landlords' hardship, according to Mark Jones, a political science professor and fellow at Rice University's Institute for Public Policy. Providing subsidies to renters so that they can pay rent is "from a renter and property owner perspective the ideal solution," Jones said.
But right now, even with the CDC moratorium in effect until December 31, eviction hearings are underway and show no sign of slowing down.
The hearings, filed with the Justice of the Peace Court, require the landlord and tenant to be present—if the tenant isn't present, the judge can automatically rule in favor of the landlord—and decide whether or not the landlord is entitled to immediately regain possession of their property. In Texas, a minimum five-day grace period is given to evicted tenants to remove their belongings from the premises, but finding another place to live can take much longer than that.
In the meantime, the city of Houston and Harris County have focused on providing rental assistance with CARES Act funding and philanthropic donations to the nonprofit Baker Ripley distributing the first round of $15 million in rent relief in May on a first come first serve basis.
Nearly 17,000 tenants attempted to apply and caused a delay on the website. The money ran out in just two hours.
Loughrin says none of it—financial and rent relief, as well as the CDC moratorium—is enough.
"It's just a Band-Aid," he said. "You know, it was done more or less to prevent the spread of COVID-19," not to help tenants out of their long-term situations.
In August, Mayor Turner allocated another $15 million in CARES Act money and $4.5 million in private funds to Baker Ripley's rent relief program. The program requires household income on or after April 1 be 60 percent to 80 percent below the area median income, and can pay up to $2,112 in past due rent, provided that the landlord is enrolled in the program.
Before you can receive rent relief, your residential property must enroll to be a participating landlord (enrollment is currently closed). Then eligible tenants—those with proof of residence, income, and a valid photo ID, which includes a current or expired foreign government-issued ID—must apply, at which point Baker Ripley will select applicants and make payments directly to the landlord.
Most recently, the city council unanimously approved a new relief fund to give the people of Houston $1,200 checks for rent, utilities, and groceries. A spokesperson for the mayor's office said the city has paid $28.5 million in late rents, and $2 million from the city remains available by application for Houstonians in need. The county prepared a $60 million rental assistance program with $31 million from the city.
At the time of reporting in early December, an estimated 25,000 tenants have received rental assistance, and $20 million is left for September, October and November rents up until December 31, according to Frederick Goodall, a spokesperson at Baker Ripley,
But when it comes to financial or rental relief, some people are falling through the cracks, said Guadalupe Fernandez, Policy and Advocacy Manager of the Tahirih Justice Center.
Similar to GoFundMe, rental assistance programs require an individual mandate to give and receive relief, Fernandez said, hinging on successful outreach to vulnerable families and a coherent application process.
"Maybe you apply for the first couple rounds of Baker Ripley assistance, and they close within 90 minutes. Then you apply for the County assistance program and because of an identification document you were turned away," Fernandez said.
Navigating all these different systems can create confusion, particularly for the many undocumented people in the Houston area. A large part of the city's population is what Fernandez calls "mixed status," meaning a family with different citizenship or immigration statuses. Houston has long been called a "resettlement magnet," attracting immigrants and refugees from all over the world and from other states.
Now, due to fears of deportation, those folks are self-evicting to avoid the formal eviction process in court, and may not feel these rental programs are available to them because of their immigration status.
But it's not only mixed-status families falling through the cracks.
Fifteen years ago, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina caused nearly 100,000 refugees from New Orleans to relocate to Houston for good. Many of those people—mostly Black families—moved into low-income housing in Greenspoint on the north side of Houston and were never able to leave, Middleton said.
Alongside Houston Tenants Union, the Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation canvasses in Greenspoint to inform tenants of their rights during the pandemic, as this area has some of the most evictions filed in Houston since the pandemic began, followed closely by Spring, Eldridge, and Alief on the westside of the city.
"Disaster and crises like COVID-19 or a hurricane exacerbate wealth gaps in preexisting inequalities," Middleton said.
Many who live in Houston just don't yet have a strong foothold in the city, Middleton said, and being low-income makes it difficult to ever find it. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the lowest-income renters pay about half the median rent of the highest income renters, yet earn only 10 percent of the latter group's income.
Because of high unemployment numbers, "The map of where evictions take place has absolutely changed," Middleton said, "It's exploded […] in a way that we weren't expecting to see."
Black women are twice as likely to be evicted as Black men, and historically Black neighborhoods in Houston were still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Harvey, not to mention those who still hadn't found their footing after Katrina or Ike.
The people who are hurting the most right now are those rebuilding their lives in a place far from home, from family—and in January, unless something changes, they might be out again.
'A money game' for the mayor?
In June, a newly created COVID-19 housing stability task force joined the offices of Mayor Turner and Judge Lina Hidalgo with apartment developers, landlords, lawyers, charities, and activists to tackle the crisis.
Hidalgo's involvement in the task force was promising to organizers, in part, because the judge made history as the first woman and Latina to be elected as county judge in Houston, and her progressive politics have led to nonstop media comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But whatever hopes they might have had were dashed when Mayor Turner pulled out of the task force after the other members unanimously recommended a grace period, which would have given tenants 21 days to respond in writing that they cannot pay rent because of the pandemic, and 60 days to come up with the money or be evicted.
Hidalgo's office represents the county in a number of administrative functions, including head of emergency management, and according to members of the task force, the judge was receptive to the grace period proposal, but the mayor refused to budge.
One member representing the city of Houston worried about "overpromising," and told organizers to manage their expectations.
"I think [Hidalgo] has been trying to push things in a way that's safe. The mayor, to me, I don't know, it seems like a money game," said Julia Orduña, Community Navigator at Texas Housers.
Mayor Turner's office said a grace period would not remove tenants' obligation to pay rent and, in the long term, "increases the hole people would have to dig themselves out from under." For those facing evictions today, however, that hole is already plenty deep, and a grace period might give them time to clamber out of it—while they had a roof overhead.
Turner's office also said the mayor has encouraged landlords and tenants to voluntarily develop their own grace periods, but members of the Houston Tenants Union said that idea is far-fetched.
"You have to be on equal footing" for that to work, Loughrin said, and management companies and landlords individually have a lot more money and a lot more power.
Another member of the Houston Tenants Union put it this way: "The first step to winning a fight is realizing there is a fight going on. The landlord-tenant relationship is an adversarial relationship."
When Fernandez joined the housing stability task force, she was told whatever they ended up recommending probably won't help everyone, but, she said, "If we're not helping the most vulnerable, who are we actually helping?"
She worries for people in rural areas. Houston is one of the largest cities in the country, has access to a massive philanthropic community, and it's still fumbling the eviction crisis. What about communities without access to all that wealth?
Mayor Turner is a "pragmatic centrist," according to Jones, the political scientist.
"He's a Democrat, but he also doesn't pursue policies that alienate the business sector."
Turner, he guessed, was probably hoping Republican Tom Ramsey would lose his reelection to the Commissioner's Court, which would have allowed the mayor to raise property taxes and better fund housing and health initiatives.
But Turner didn't give more money to vulnerable Houstonians. Instead, the $5.1 billion city budget that passed in June issued a $20 million increase to the Houston Police Department. In October, Turner allocated an additional $4.1 million in CARES Act relief to the Houston Police Department—after a summer of protests calling to defund police.
"Our government is not being responsive, or responsibly responsive, to these issues," Orduña said.
"Advocates don't know what's going on; residents don't know, and the mayor is keeping people in the dark about the things he's trying to do."
Direct action for the long haul
Thrust into this unprecedented housing crisis, activists are planning for the long battle ahead.
They have to. They may know better than anyone that this crisis is a result of decades of policy.
Modeling a new program after the city of Austin's BASTA, which organizes tenants around knowing their rights, Middleton started the Houston Eviction Solidarity Project, an offshoot of Texas Housers currently focused on collecting data on evictions, in late March. The goal of the project is to connect volunteers to oversee eviction hearing livestreams and collect data for future use.
Before getting started, volunteers are required to take a class with Orduña and Ally Harris, Educator and Communications Specialist with Texas Housers, so that they can learn the legal language and what to expect from the hearings.
"The court cases happen quickly," Harris said. "I once saw seven court cases in 10 minutes." Volunteers have to be prepared to write down everything. How many people live in the household? Were there any accessibility issues? How did the Justice of the Peace rule on the case? The details can get lost, or they might not be brought up at all. Volunteers have to write that down too.
The program is only a couple of weeks old but already has 14 volunteers, including Kaelyn Ackermann, a 20-year-old undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"When you read the headlines, you think, 'Oh, there's a hold on evictions.'" Through her work with the project, she's seen firsthand that's not always the case.
According to Richard Harmon, a Houston Tenants Union member who mobilized in October with the union to help someone avoid security deposit theft, tenants are most vulnerable at the "beginning and end" of a relationship with a landlord, and most aren't prepared for a legal battle in court. In this most recent case, the tenant didn't end up signing her lease after paying a deposit and the landlord refused to give it back. In response, Harmon said, the union drove in a caravan to the landlord's house more than two hours outside Houston to deliver a demand letter, reading it aloud.
"Shame is a powerful tool," Harmon said. "Not only do we want the landlord to know that we're here, but we also want their neighbors to know."
The landlord returned the deposit later that month.
People might be used to seeing a lawyer prosecute someone on behalf of a working person, or some "passionate politician" filibustering in the name of the working class, Harmon added. "These are the models we're familiar within society, but what does tend to scare [landlords] is when working people, tenants, show up directly to advocate on their own behalf."
"Landlords and management companies, many of them have their own organizations—they work together," Loughran said, but when tenants work together, "their direct action is something no one can ignore."