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Eviction relief proposed in Denton as federal moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31

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LEEP proposal

Denton City Council members are expected on Thursday to discuss whether to move forward on council member Deb Armintor's emergency proposal she is calling LEEP, or Local Emergency Eviction Prohibition.

Denton City Council member Deb Armintor has proposed a relief package that would prohibit landlords from posting notices to vacate to tenants — a legal prerequisite in the eviction process — and subsequent measures designed to preempt what she feels would become a crisis here after the federal moratorium on evictions expires on Dec. 31.

In a procedural move on Thursday, when she and other council members are scheduled to meet, she will ask her colleagues for a one-minute emergency proposal on what she calls LEEP, or Local Emergency Eviction Prohibition. Council members, in such a scenario, are given a minute to explain why the other council members should consider discussing the item. If a consensus is reached — a majority of the seven-member council — debate would begin on the item.

“Its goal is to prevent the deluge of local evictions and intensified local public health crisis we are sure to see after the federal eviction moratorium expires on December 31 if this new council doesn’t act immediately to protect the people we’re sworn to serve in a town that is over 50% renters,” Armintor said in an email to city staff members, the Denton Record-Chronicle and others. “My proposed LEEP … is intended not as a permanent solution to housing insecurity in Denton, but as a temporary ‘leap’ across the chasm before us.”

Central to LEEP, she said, is blocking landlords from posting notices to vacate through March 2021.

“The city of Austin has successfully banned landlords from issuing them through the end of the year (subject to renewal),” Armintor wrote. “The intention of such a ban at the local level, of course, is to protect tenants against loopholes in the soon-to-expire federal eviction moratorium.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created the moratorium through the end of the year for people making less than $99,000 a year (or $198,000 for a couple filing a joint tax return).

The median household income for Americans in 2019 was $68,703. In Denton, that number was $56,409.

‘Best legislative tool’

“Earlier in the COVID pandemic, I proposed a ban on notices to vacate, but did not have the consensus on council to move it forward,” Armintor said in the email. “I am hopeful that the newly formed council will research the issue, talk to local and national homelessness prevention experts, public health experts, and city staff, and see that banning notices to vacate is the best legislative tool cities have at their disposal to stop tenants from getting evicted and to protect public health and housing under this pandemic, even if the eviction moratorium set to expire (on Dec. 31) is renewed in 2021 at the federal level.”

In September, Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued an order that prohibits notices to vacate through Dec. 31 for those who pay rent less than $2,475. Travis County approved an order with similar conditions. Justices of the peace in that county set limitations on filing eviction cases until after Dec. 31 for those who pay rent less than $2,475. And this week, the Austin City Council was expected to extend the mayor’s order for 60 days.

“We have adopted what many places have adopted,” said Tara Pohlmeyer, spokesperson for Austin City Council member Greg Casar. “It has been a collective effort between the city, county and landlords who are willing to help tenants through COVID-19 to find solutions. I think there are people who bring up landlords, but there are other resources for landlords. I think right now, protecting our most vulnerable is the top concern, and that is what we’re focused on.”

In a news release, data from the Princeton University Eviction Lab shows Austin has seen fewer evictions during the pandemic. Twenty-two filings were reported last week. Tenants may be evicted for reasons other than delinquent payments, such as violence or property damage.

“Our data shows Austin has had some of the lowest numbers in the country because of the protections we put in place,” Pohlmeyer said. “Some of the other cities that have had similar numbers are Boston, St. Paul [Minnesota] and South Bend, Indiana. We also have people in Houston and Fort Worth who do have large number of evictions during COVID.”

In Austin, 725 evictions have been filed since March 15. That number reached its peak in March, when the pandemic began to worsen, and has continuously dropped.

The Eviction Lab maintains data on hundreds of cities around the country including Austin, Fort Worth and Houston. In Houston, 18,229 evictions have been filed since March 15. For Fort Worth, that number is 9,266 for the same period. Denton is not included among cities with top eviction rates.

‘Legally impossible’

Denton City Council member Jesse Davis, an assistant district attorney, emailed the Record-Chronicle about Armintor’s proposal. He challenged it, called it “legally impossible” and questioned its necessity.

“The Denton City Council does not have the legal authority to change or interfere with the eviction process — a fact confirmed by an attorney general’s opinion issued in August,” Davis said. “By themselves, [the moves] the city of Austin has taken (and which council member Armintor proposes for Denton) aren’t really doing anything to prevent evictions. Evictions aren’t happening right now, but only because the Travis County [justices of the peace] have all agreed to delay them for the time being.”

That AG’s opinion — dated Aug. 7, to state Sen. Brandon Creighton — summarized that Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code grants emergency powers to the governor and local officials operating under a disaster declaration but does not authorize local governments operating under the same to “independently rewrite state law such as Property Code Chapter 24 governing evictions.”

Attorney general opinions are not binding under Texas law.

Pohlmeyer said Austin has faced no legal challenges and that council members consulted in-house attorneys before adopting legislation prohibiting posting notices to vacate.

“We have been able to make this work since March,” she said. “By layering these orders from the city to county officials, Austin has been able to keep its number of evictions filed among the lowest in the nation. Essentially, there are protections at each step of the process, and we work with the mayor, the county and [justices of the peace] to make sure they align, make sense and are enforceable.”

Davis said Denton County justices of the peace “have not decided to delay evictions, so any legal steps taken by the city of Denton would be worse than useless. They would probably also land us in a lawsuit over what the attorney general has already made clear: We don’t have the authority to override the Property Code or a lease.”

‘Better solution’

For Davis, instead of risking litigation, the more ideal scenario is for Denton officials to wait for more help from the federal government.

“The better solution, to me, is to provide more financial help to renters facing eviction,” he said. “With Denton’s help, the United Way of Denton County has distributed $6.5 million this year to help keep more than 4,200 families in their homes. Paying the rent for these families has the added benefit of keeping landlords whole, because they still have property taxes and mortgages to pay, whether the rent comes in or not.”

That assistance has come through the federal CARES Act. But funding has been depleted, Davis said.

“More money is on the way. It’s just a question of bridging the gap,” he said. “On Thursday, we may hear something about more funding sources. United Way has closed applications for funding right now. But they said if more money becomes available, they would help us get it to people to help them.”

United Way of Denton County CEO Gary Henderson did not return a message seeking comment.

‘Buying more time’

Armintor has proposed two other measures in the event she does not receive consensus on the prohibition on notices to vacate.

“I would like council to pass emergency legislation extending the time required for renters to comply with notices to vacate from three days to 30 days,” she said in her email. “I would like direction from council on asking the city manager … to find existing city general fund dollars from lower-priority budget items and non-safety-related construction projects to provide rental relief to sustain struggling tenants and basic property maintenance relief for landlords who agree not to post notices to vacate until March to bridge the relief gap until the next wave of federal funding comes in and/or until we find out whether or not we’ve received any of the additional grants we’ve applied for.”

Jason Simon is director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, the organization that represents 600,000 rental units in the 11-county area around Dallas, including Denton County. He said he favors allocating greater rental assistance to tenants and landlords over Armintor’s other proposals.

“We believe rental assistance is the silver bullet,” Simon said. “That is a great idea. I do think there’s a potential to have a lot of evictions. But to say it’s going to be a tsunami, which is what the media has been saying for nine months — we have not seen that materialize. Evictions are a last resort. But rental assistance is key.”

According to figures provided by the city, 11 nonprofit agencies have provided eviction-prevention assistance during the pandemic, with the United Way of Denton County the source of the most requests for help (1,428). Assistance for rent, mortgage payments and utilities totaled 4,199 cases.

“I would say that the vast majority of landlords have been very sympathetic to their tenants,” Simon said. “They are waiving late fees, credit card processing fees and rent. I think a lot of compassion has been shown the last eight or nine months. What Deb wants, such as increasing the notice to vacate from three days to 30 days, is kicking the can down the road. You still have all this back rent and late fees accumulating. It’s not rent forgiveness. When the moratorium is eventually lifted, all that rent is going to be due.”

Furthermore, Davis said, some landlords are struggling to pay their bills, too.

“The most important thing is keeping people from becoming homeless. But you also have landlords who are not wealthy who have to pay a mortgage every month and pay their property taxes in the next month or so to the county. So if there’s no financial assistance provided at the tenant level, then you’ve got tenants who are losing their homes as well as properties going into foreclosure.”

Simon said he expects Congress to approve additional relief funding “at the last minute” through the end of January.

PAUL BRYANT can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @paulbryant_DRC.

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