FORT WORTH, Texas — On the morning of April 8, landlord Margarita Palacios went before a Tarrant County, Texas, judge via Zoom and tried to explain why she wanted to evict a tenant who owed $4,350 in back rent.
Palacios, representing The Palace apartments, began to explain, “We sent her links to rental assistance programs and offered to help fill out the applications in our office, but—”
“I don’t really need to know,” said Justice of the Peace Mary Tom Curnutt, interrupting Palacios midsentence. “I don’t really have a dog in the fight, I will just tell you that if there’s still any chance of you getting your money then don’t take the judgment, but if you want to get them out of there, let’s get them out of there.”
Even as states and the federal government have allocated billions of dollars in assistance, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, more than 14.5 million Americans don’t know whether they can pay their rent, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey.
In the past year, nearly every state, including Texas, has protected tenants through eviction moratoriums. And last September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a federal moratorium to protect public health.
But landlords struggling to pay their own bills say many tenants don’t qualify for the CDC order. And the moratorium in Texas expired at the end of March.
As COVID-19 vaccinations continue and many leaders push for a return to normalcy this spring, some states are ready to let landlords move tenants out. That means residents’ fates are often determined in local courtrooms, before justices of the peace who can decide on their own how vigorously they want to enforce the federal moratorium.
Greg Brown, senior vice president for government affairs for the National Apartment Association, said many of his members have expressed frustration with residents who are unresponsive and don’t show up to court.
The latest estimate for outstanding rental debt nationwide is $58 billion, averaging about $6,000 per renter, according to Brown. He said only $0.10 of every $1 that a housing provider receives is profit, with the remainder going to mortgage payments, property taxes or other operating expenses.
“Many, especially small owners, are in a really tough spot,” Brown said. “Some have had to drain their savings or whatever they have to do to keep the lights on so to speak.”