Before a new federal eviction ban went into effect recently, Alice and Jeremy Bumpus were on the verge of getting evicted. They live in a house outside Houston with their three kids. And they both lost their jobs after the pandemic hit. Alice worked at an airport fast food restaurant; Jeremy at a warehouse.
"We explained to the judge that due to everything that was going on, we just fell behind on just our one month's rent," Alice says.
But in Texas, missing one month's rent gives the landlord the right to evict you. So the judge ruled against them. Evictions have been back underway in Houston, even though the state remains a hot spot for COVID-19 — with around 4,000 new cases every day.
It appears they should have qualified for unemployment, but the state office told them they didn't.
Jeremy's mother also lives with them. "My mom is 68," he says.
"And that's what we worry about the most," Alice Bumpus adds. "You know how much more we're going to be at risk when we have to move up out of our home. My mother-in-law is very sickly."
Their landlord didn't respond to NPR's repeated requests for an interview. At this point they had to get out of the house in a matter of days and they didn't have enough money to rent another place.
"The kids are a little a little worried," Alice Bumpus says. "They know at the end of the day that we're going to do whatever that it takes to protect them. But you know it was hard talking to them."
But then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announceda new eviction moratorium. The ban is nationwide — but it's not automatic. And many renters facing eviction still don't know about the ban or understand the rules or their rights.
"In order for tenants to be covered, they have to send a written declaration to the landlord," says Velimir Rasic, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid who is representing the Bumpus family.
Tenants have to swear that, among other things, they have no options besides being homeless or moving in with other people in close quarters.
Rasic "called us and had us sign a paper," Jeremy Bumpus says. Rasic advises renters to email it to the landlord, or to send it certified mail with a return receipt requested so they can prove they sent it.
And now it looks like the CDC eviction ban is going to protect the family until the end of the year. The court told law enforcement not to evict them.
But the Bumpus family was lucky that they managed to get a legal aid lawyer to help them. By one count, just in the Houston area, more than 9,000 eviction cases have been filed during the pandemic. Houston is one of the ground zero cities when it comes to evictions. And less than 4% of those renters facing eviction have a lawyer.
Houston Public Media sent a reporter to four different courthouses last week to observe about 100 eviction cases, and found that only one renter was able to use the CDC order to block their eviction. So in 99% of those cases the order was having no effect at all.
Legal aid attorneys in Houston also say it's still too often business as usual at eviction hearings. The judges aren't asking landlords if tenants sent them CDC declarations. Many tenants don't show up. And among those that do, most don't appear to even know about their rights under the CDC order. The judges don't ask them about that. And in the vast majority of cases, the landlord is given the right to evict them. That's despite the CDC order, in the middle of a pandemic.
"This is a emergency order from the Center for Disease Control to prevent people from dying," says John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Housers, a prominent housing policy nonprofit. He's watching this play out in courts across the state and the country. And he sees lots of confusion.
"We're still working in that murky period between [when] the order hits and the courts and the govt bureaucracy figures out how to actually implement it," he says. Henneberger says the state judicial systems need to quickly offer more guidance to lower court judges on how to do that.
"There's a lot of people already falling through the cracks," he says. "And every day that goes on people's lives are being put at risk by being evicted.
And he fears things are likely to get worse. Henneberger points to an ongoing U.S. Census Pulse Survey, aimed at assessing the effects of the pandemic, which finds that both in Texas and nationally about a quarter of renters have low confidence in meeting their next rent payment.
Meanwhile, landlords say the CDC eviction ban isn't fair to them because there's no money in it for the unpaid rent. Paula Cino is with the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords. She says with tens of millions of Americans out of work, Congress needs to pass another stimulus bill with help for renters.
"Americans still aren't working, they have depleted their savings," Cino says. "When a renter doesn't pay, then we can't make our mortgage payments, pay our payroll. And that really creates the opportunity for a systemic failure in the housing market."
For their part, Jeremy and Alice Bumpus are glad they're not getting evicted for now. "It gives us time to actually figure out what we can do," Jeremy Bumpus says. Alice Bumpus has been told she's been approved for unemployment benefits, though the money hasn't started coming yet.
"This situation could happen to anyone," she says. "Sometimes life throws you curve balls and it just depends on how you handle that curve ball. So right now, we're hitting the best we could and just keep moving forward."
Jeremy Bumpus has signed up with three different food delivery services and he and his wife are trying to start a business doing delivery, car detailing and all kinds of odd jobs. They're hoping they can piece together enough income to afford a place to live.
Houston Public Media's Jen Rice contributed reporting to this story.
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