Without a current Texas Supreme Court order to stop some eviction cases, Smith County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Andy Dunklin conducted eviction hearings between local landlords and tenants Thursday morning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order that may protect tenants from being evicted or removed from where they are living. This meant they would be able to stay at the place where they live through June 30, 2021, a result of a President Donald Trump administration order.
Although some tenants facing eviction have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic financially, the 34th Emergency Order regarding the COVID-19 state of disaster issued by the Texas Supreme Court, which allowed the implementation of the temporary eviction prohibition in justice courts, expired March 31.
Thursday morning, landlords and tenants of Smith County resumed eviction hearings. Some of those facing eviction left in tears from the courtroom.
Dunklin conducted 22 hearings of tenants facing eviction from 10 different landlords across the county, including Town Village South Apartments, Dove Tree Apartments, The Lodge on Broadway, Trinity Mobile Home Park and Cumberland Place Apartments, among others.
As part of assistance, both tenants and landlords have reached out to receive help from the Texas Rent Relief Program, where emergency funds are available to help Texas renters pay rent and utility bills.
The rent relief program can help renters with past due, current and two months of expected rent costs, as far back as March 13, 2020, as well as past due, current and up to two months of expected utility and home energy expenses. After the initial three months of current and future assistance, renters may apply for three additional months of assistance if funds are still available.
In addition to the Texas Rent Relief Program, tenants have also reached out to local resources, including COVID-19 Emergency Rent Relief Program from PATH, a nonprofit helping families and individuals facing homelessness because of eviction notices.
Chloe Wiltsey, property manager for Town Village South, said although they try their best to work with the tenants, it takes a long time to hear back from the Texas Rent Relief Program.
“We’ve been waiting for about two months on them to respond. I don’t know if they’re short staffed or anything like that, so it has taken them a little bit longer to respond. I have not worked with PATH yet. I don’t know exactly how their program works, but it seems like it would be easier even going through the Texas Rent Relief,” Wiltsey said.
Wiltsey said the the lack of payment since the pandemic has affected the renting industry financially.
“With all of the stimulus checks and refunds, a lot of them have caught up. I just have a handful of them who are just not communicating, who are working, but not communicating with us. That’s one of the big problems with the program,” she said.
Cheryl, who is a service parts coordinator, earns $15 an hour and works 40 hours a week. She said making more money or having a second income in the household would help her catch up and be able to fully cover her living expenses.
“(My landlord) is good, she does everything she can, she really does. She reached out to me about PATH, she’s worked with me because I don’t ignore her, but (you owe) $10,000 and you haven’t tried to make any kind of payment and you’re getting unemployment? I kind of understand where she’s coming from,” Cheryl said.
A property manager for a local multi-family mobile home park said that out of 40 residents, 10 have been evicted since the end of March.
“It’s sad that we have to evict people,” he said.
He said over the course of the pandemic, more tenants were struggling to pay.
“A lot of people were getting laid off, a lot of people were not working simply because of symptoms and because of restrictions and things like that, so they just couldn’t afford to pay rent on a monthly basis. We lost about 40% of our tenants. The turnover has been a little bit longer than expected also because of COVID-19, so it’s been a rough couple of months,” he said. “A lot of people can’t help that they get laid off for several months and you know, we’re a devout Christian, small business and we try to work out as many people as we can. Sometimes, we also have a business to run.”
He said the eviction process was the final step when all other options have been exhausted.
“The sad thing about evictions is that not a lot of people leave. Sometimes they don’t want to leave and sometimes, they don’t have anywhere else to go,” the property manager said.
His message to tenants is to try to be informed, reach out to local and statewide assistance and to stay strong.
PATH representatives requested to attend the residential eviction hearing to negotiate with landlords and tenants. PATH Executive Director Andrea Wilson said the nonprofit is partnering with Smith County to distribute funds for families whose income was affected by COVID-19 and who cannot pay rent and utilities.
The partnership comes from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that the Smith County Commissioners approved at the beginning of March this year. Smith County had received a budget of over $7 million through the U.S. Treasury Rental Assistance Program to provide rental assistance to county residents.
In the stringent guidelines given to Smith County from the federal government on how to spend the funds, Smith County must have spent 65% of the funds given by September. By December, the federal government will draw back the funds if not already spent.
“It’s always hard to ask for help. What happens, especially with the families today, they probably asked for help from their circle, their family, and then reached out to organizations,” Wilson said.
She said that unrelated to COVID-19, PATH has the funding to help 15 to 20 families each month with one month of rent assistance.
“Once we’ve filled our appointment calendar for that, then we don’t have any more appointments available for rent assistance if it’s unrelated to COVID-19, so the resources are very thin for rent assistance. We have about 450 phone calls every month from folks who are facing homelessness as a result of not being able to pay their rent,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that well before COVID-19, in 2018 and 2019, there has been a population of people in Tyler who make low wages and pay high rent.
“Any change in their monthly budget, something they couldn’t have planned for, something that was unexpected, can cause them to not be able to pay rent. It may be something as a car repair they had to make in order for their car to work to get them back and forth to work, so they had to use their rent money for that,” Wilson said. “These are not people who are looking for a handout. They are not people who are trying to work the system. They are hard working citizens of this town who are working at our restaurants, they’re working at our retail shops and they just don’t make enough to make ends meet.”
Wilson said the rent assistance PATH is providing helps to support local business men and women who are landlords, as well as to keep families housed.
“We’re not just passing this money out willy-nilly for rent assistance. We’re being really careful, so we say ‘no’ a lot. But we say ‘yes’ to those families who have an unexpected event that caused them to not be able to pay rent,” Wilson said.
She said that since the CDC moratorium has been lifted, more people in Tyler are at risk of homelessness.