As Austin-area evictions spike, attorneys are available (virtually) to help tenants

Photo by Patricia Lim/KUT. Carl Guthrie participates in a Zoom meeting at the Central Texas Pro bono Legal Services office in Austin last month.

Friday, March 25, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Travis County Eviction Court has looked different during the pandemic. The hearings, for the most part, were held virtually; people can log in from anywhere and find out if they need to leave their homes.

Standing in a parking lot. On break from work. In the car. On the couch.

Some players are also different. Since evictions are civil matters and people are not guaranteed to have a lawyer, it is rare to see them in eviction proceedings. But under a new state-funded program, attorneys are now showing up in virtual courtrooms across Travis County, offering to represent tenants for free.

Proponents say this is a game-changer, especially as local eviction bans have expired and rental prices have risen at a historic rate.

“It’s an absolute world of difference,” said Carl Guthrie, an attorney with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, which oversees the program. “Ejections are technical, aren’t they? It’s the law. And often they are wrong, especially when there are no lawyers on either side.

“Show up, expect to be kicked out”

Volunteer attorneys have been in Travis County virtual courtrooms since September, available to help tenants with their cases. This is the norm in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia, which have implemented “right to counsel” programs, where low-income tenants are guaranteed access to an attorney.

Typically, Guthrie said, tenants in Travis County are surprised to see one.

“These are people who show up expecting to be kicked out and had no one to help them…and had no idea there would be anyone there,” he said. “Most of the time people are thrilled.”

On a Wednesday morning in February, a woman signed up for an eviction hearing on Zoom. She was on the phone, standing in a parking lot. Her lawyer later explained that she had been off work. (KUT does not use this woman’s name because she did not respond to requests to speak.)

The woman had not paid rent on her apartment in North Austin since October and owed more than $6,000 in rent and late fees. Jack Skaggs, a lawyer who had volunteered to represent her, was on the phone. He asked the judge for more time to consider the case.

‘I just got a copy of the petition about 30 minutes ago and spoke to my client about five minutes ago,’ he told judge Juan Duran, who was presiding as judge of Peace 2 of Travis County that day.

The person representing the lessor objected, believing that the sum due was too large and that he did not want to wait any longer.

But Duran agreed to take over the case in a week.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for everyone,” he said. “However, the court recognizes the position in which Mr. Skaggs has just met his client. In an effort to be fair to everyone, the court will grant Mr. Skaggs’ motion for continuance.

The hearing was over. Two minutes had passed.

What is the result ?

This is often how these cases unfold.

Judge Nicholas Chu, who presides over the Travis 5 County justice of the peace, said he has seen a big increase in legal representation for tenants through the program.

Although he did not have specific numbers when he spoke with KUT, he guessed that before this program, 1 in 40 tenants had a lawyer; now it’s closer to 1 in 2.

So what does this mean for tenants?

Central Texas Voluntary Legal Services says nearly 80% of the cases they have handled under this program have not resulted in a deportation order. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a tenant didn’t have to move.

Skaggs was able to negotiate with the landlord of the woman who phoned for her expulsion from work. They reached an agreement: the landlord would drop the eviction case if the tenant left the apartment in mid-March.

“The key for (this woman) was to stop the lawsuit so she didn’t have a deportation (judgment) on her case,” Skaggs told KUT.

Even if a tenant avoids an eviction order, just having a complaint filed against them can make it difficult to rent another place.

Chu said he believes that offering legal aid to tenants has helped speed up eviction hearings in a legal environment where such hearings are already proceeding at a rapid pace.

“Often, before having a lawyer, tenants would explain situations about the nature of the landlord-tenant relationship or things the landlord hadn’t done right or things that were supposed to be done right, that don’t affect really not the court case in terms of unpaid rent,” Chu told KUT.

When a tenant doesn’t pay rent, the state law is pretty clear: the tenant has violated the terms of the lease and is eligible for eviction. The details often don’t matter. Having an attorney present, Chu said, limits the case to legally relevant facts and ensures that anything a tenant may have missed isn’t overlooked.

Emily Blair, executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, said while eviction hearings can move quickly, reaching a resolution can sometimes take longer with more attorneys involved. Volunteer Legal Services pays for this program with $140,000 in grants from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which received its state funding.

Blair said the association is more supportive of funds like these used to help tenants pay their rent.

Earlier this month, Travis County announced it would be closing its latest version of a rental assistance program after receiving more than 3,000 applications in one week. Renters now face a veritable wasteland of rent assistance resources, since the city and state have also run out of money for rent assistance.

“Our encouragement to the county is to continue to consider expanding this direct assistance to residents who need it, because this is really an early intervention that we certainly viewed as a good investment,” Blair said.

Funding for the Volunteer Legal Services lawyer program is due to expire in August. At a meeting earlier this year, Travis County staff said they are trying to find ways to continue to have pro bono tenant attorneys in eviction court.

Guthrie said he hopes if people fully understand what’s at stake when someone is deported, they’ll understand the need for a program like this.

“What is the real cost of an eviction on someone’s life? It’s more than having to shell out for a new security deposit or the first month’s rent or moving costs,” he said.

People evicted from their homes may end up living in their cars or having to move their children from school to school without notice.

“You have to think, if you get kicked out and you have nowhere to go, where are you going to park your car?” How are you going to keep your children in school? How are you going to find a job or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address? Where are you going to get your mail? Guthrie said.

This story was produced as part of the austin monitorreporting partnership with KUT.

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