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Here’s what to do if you face an eviction in Austin, Texas
It could be an absent paycheck or a surprise medical bill that sends your budget spiraling, causing you to miss a rent payment.
With 51 percent of Americans likely to face economic hardship for missing just one paycheck, the risk of coming up short to pay for necessities like food and rent is very high if anything goes wrong, according to a University of Chicago study,
Here’s what to do if you’re evicted in Austin-Houston and what programs are in place to help prevent you from being forced from your home.
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The most common reason for eviction, according Harris County Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown, is when renters don’t pay their rent.
“Money is an issue but the root cause may be that you qualify for other benefits and you need someone to walk through the processes,” said Brown, who presides over Harris County Precinct 7.
’MORE HOW TO’: How do I file a small claims case in Harris County?
Eviction is a fairly short process: when a tenant misses a payment, they should consult their lease to see if their landlord offers a grace period for late payment. Changes in Texas law restrict landlords from charging late fees if the tenant pays rent within two full days after the due date if the lease began or was renewed on or after Sept. 1, 2019.
After that, it’s fair game for a landlord to issue a notice to pay rent or leave the property, although most won’t on a first missed payment.
“The misconception is they think owners want to evict,” said Alpa Patel, a public affairs specialist with the Houston Apartment Association. “They don’t want to. It’s a process of a couple of months, and you have to end up going to court.”
When a landlord does issue a notice to vacate, a tenant has three days to leave. In some cases, a lease may shorten or lengthen the amount of time the tenant has to vacate. If the tenant doesn’t leave, the landlord can then file the eviction in court — and then it’s only a matter of weeks for the eviction to blow through court.
Grounds for eviction
Non-payment of rent may be the most common reason for eviction, but Texas landlords can legally evict residents for other reasons including, but not limited to:
Violation of a lease (e.g. owning a dog when no pets are allowed)
Breaking HOA by-laws Illegal activity
Staying longer than the lease allows without the landlord’s consent
Landlords can’t evict tenants on the grounds of:
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Protected classes such as race or gender under the Fair Housing Act
Being a victim of crime, including domestic violence or sexual assault
Retaliation for making complaints “in good faith” about necessary repairs
If a landlord evicts a tenant within six months of requesting repairs or making a complaint to a government agency about living conditions, that's likely to be seen as illegal eviction for retaliation, according to the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
According to the State Bar of Texas, a tenant could be at risk of eviction and financial penalties for wittholding rent. Unlike other states, there are no protections for Texas renters who want to withhold payments because of a lack of necessary repairs.
So if your AC breaks in August and you want to withhold rent until the landlord sends someone to fix it, you will likely be in violation of your lease and won’t have any protections if a landlord tries to evict you for not non-payment.
“Under Texas law, if you haven’t made a proper request, if you are behind in rent when you make that request, they have no obligation to make the repair if you’re delinquent,” said Ryan Marquez, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. Requests to landlords, changes in leases and any additional provisions should be made in writing to ensure that it’s legally enforceable.
Who to call for help
The Houston Apartment Association runs a renter’s hotline three days a week: Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and Thursday and Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. During those times, renters can call 713-595-0300 to file a complaint or learn about their rights as renters.
HAA’s online complaint portal also allows the association to investigate and mediate between renters and landlords in those cases.
The City of Houston also offers a renter’s hotline for tenants who feel they have experienced discrimination or have other landlord-tenant issues. Tenants can call 832.394.6200 ext. 5 to file a complaint or seek help with other rental issues.
Both the city and HAA can help renters find free or low-cost legal aid. Tenants can also call the State Bar of Texas at 800-252-9890 during business hours Monday through Friday for a referral to an attorney who can provide a low-cost consultation.
Keeping the peace
A patchwork of rental assistance programs might pay for housing if it’s a one-time blip. Down south in Harris County Precinct 7, a coalition of housing and law enforcement groups have piloted an eviction prevention program.
Under Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown, Harris County Community Services and several other organizations, the program is supposed to connect low-to-moderate income residents to financial help for homelessness prevention and short-term housing case management.
Landlords have to refer tenants to the program if it’s a one-time hiccup and they need help navigating a myriad of benefits and other assistance programs. Referral processes at rental assistance programs can be tricky to navigate and time consuming. The eviction prevention pilot is designed to streamline the process and help landlords and assistance organizations understand why a tenant might find it difficult to cobble enough money together in time, while offering aid to the tenant.
“When you try to get someone to help you pay your rent, you call your friends, family or church,” Brown said. “One of the main pieces of this project is really engaging all stakeholders to see what are the barriers they face.”
If you need to consult a third party about if your property owner is doing something wrong, there is an avenue for mediation resolution in Harris County.
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The Harris County Dispute Resolution Center offers free mediation services to county residents, and landlords and tenants should use those services to avoid costly small claims cases.
After the notice
Chances are that if you’ve received an eviction notice and you haven’t paid your rent, you won’t have much luck staying where you are. Tenants often have just a day to consult legal help and get their belongings out of their homes before a constable comes to enforce the order, experts said.
Tenants should pack important documents like birth certificates and tax returns in one safe place to make it easy to grab if they have to leave, Marquez said.
It can be very difficult to get property back once it’s been seized and turned over, especially if you don’t have the correct identification.
After being evicted, you’ll have to seek housing that will allow renters with prior evictions to rent — which may require renting a home from a landlord who won’t run a background check. It may be a long shot, but you can also reach out to the landlord to see if they will sign a written agreement to remove the eviction from your record as long as you pay any outstanding debt.
“It’s hard to tell people, but when it comes down to it, if you’re going to be evicted, it’s almost like a triage,” Marquez said. “Because you don’t want to be in a circumstance where you leave something important behind.”
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