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Houston renters face an eviction process made for landlords

May 12, 2023

Houston has seen eviction rates soar since pandemic protections for renters lapsed. At one apartment complex, ejecting people from their homes is a ritual part of the business model.

by Lucy Tompkins, The Texas Tribune and The New York Times, and Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune June 8, 20235 AM Central

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HOUSTON — On first approach, The Life at Jackson Square appears to reflect its buoyant name.

Two-story brick buildings wrap around neat courtyards, water fountains and swimming pools at the sprawling, garden-style apartment complex. It offers the opportunity to live in "prestigious Bellaire," its website says, where families can send their children to highly regarded schools attended by well-to-do neighbors.

But upon closer inspection, cracks emerge in the facade.

Tucked under silver door knockers are notices demanding residents vacate their apartments. Eviction records hang from metal door clips. Here and there, piles of clothing, pots and pans, mattresses and boxes of diapers line the hallways — traces of families who seemed to vanish, leaving behind what they could not carry.

The Life at Jackson Square is both a lure and a rebuke for those drawn to its modest apartments and inviting grounds. It is where Houston's affordable housing and eviction crises collide, a fault zone where hopes for security and upward mobility are ground down by an unrelenting business model and unsparing court system.

On any given Tuesday, when the nearby justice of the peace court hears eviction cases, the docket is peppered with filings from The Life at Jackson Square. In the past year, around 500 evictions have been filed against tenants at the property — more than one a day — making the complex, owned by a private New York-based investment company called Olive Tree Holdings, the site of more evictions than any other in Harris County.

The company uses evictions not as a last resort for recouping large debts or kicking out problematic tenants, but as an automated and efficient tool for enforcing rent collection by threatening displacement.

While the pandemic interrupted the pace of evictions, prompting temporary protections and record funding for rent relief, those measures have mostly fallen away and Houston is now experiencing one of the biggest spikes in eviction filings nationwide. The Houston metro area has seen 42% more eviction filings in the last year than a typical year before the pandemic — a historic high for the city — according to data compiled by researchers at Eviction Lab.

"It's like the pandemic never happened and we’re not just back to normal, we’re overflowing with evictions now," said David McClendon, a researcher at January Advisors, a Houston-based data consulting firm that compiles housing and eviction data.

The crush of eviction filings throws renters into a system that all but guarantees they will lose their homes and carry a permanent mark on their rental record.

From afar, The Life at Jackson Square beckoned Anthony McDonald and Stalica Munroe with its cheap rent and renovated apartments with floor plans named after native Texas trees like magnolia, buckeye and ash. The neighborhood was safe, and their twin 16-year-old daughters could attend nearby Bellaire High School, one of the best public schools in the city. It seemed a place to settle, get ahead and prepare for the birth of their baby girl in July.

They moved from the Bahamas into a two-bedroom apartment last fall. Because Munroe, 35, is awaiting her green card, the family relied on McDonald, 50, to support them.

The money McDonald brought in as a sales representative was enough to pay the bills each month, but only just. After struggling for months to find a well-paying job and burning through their savings, it was difficult to cover rent at the beginning of the month, so he said he struck a verbal deal with the complex managers to pay at the end, with added late fees.

For months, they said they paid rent this way with no issue.

But the mirage of The Life at Jackson Square faded quickly: Sewage came up through their kitchen sink and they realized their ground-floor apartment was overrun with mold, they said. One of their daughters developed a respiratory infection, and after weeks of complaints to management, their entire living room floor and part of a wall were torn up and redone.

When the couple asked to move to another unit, they said they were told none were available. But they noticed many appeared to be empty, with wrinkled, weeks-old eviction notices fluttering on the doors.

Places like The Life at Jackson Square offer a disappearing chance at affordable living west of downtown Houston. Built over several years starting in 1968, the 1,326-unit complex covers roughly six neighborhood blocks in the Meyerland neighborhood on the outskirts of Bellaire and its million-dollar homes.

Its residents live at the margins of prosperity.

Much of the apartment complex sits in a census tract where more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty. Most families get by on less than $50,000 a year. The vast majority of people are Latino or Black while surrounding census tracts are disproportionately white.

A December 2021 purchase added the property to the portfolio of Olive Tree Holdings, a private New York-based investment firm founded in 2017 with a history of flipping apartment complexes in what it describes as "dynamically growing markets."

In Atlanta, for example, the company redeveloped and sold nine properties in 2021 and 2022, turning a profit of 74%, or $137 million, within four years, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. With a portfolio valued at $2 billion, Olive Tree's website touts a 22% average rent increase at its properties to prospective investors.

The Life Properties, which manages properties for Olive Tree, runs apartment complexes in eight states and is rapidly expanding in Texas, with 10 complexes in the Houston area and another in Fort Worth.

In an interview, The Life Properties’ president, Jamin Harkness, described the company's two goals: preserving affordable housing and growing the value of its properties. Jackson Square is likely to be sold after many of the units are renovated and new amenities like a playground are added, Harkness said.

"We’ve gone in and really put our arms around this community to try to make a big difference," he said. "And then two things happen: Our investors get a return, and we’ve created a better community for everyone."

The Life at Jackson Square's appraised value has already ballooned from $67.1 million in 2021, when Olive Tree bought it, to $106.1 million this year.

At the same time, the pace of eviction filings at the complex has spiked. Throughout 2019, before the pandemic and before Olive Tree bought it, 142 evictions were filed there. In just one year since it changed hands, there have been close to 500.

The company uses an automated eviction process that gives people who are often already living on the edge little leeway if they fall behind on rent.

"We hate to go through this eviction process," Harkness said. "It is a lot, but we have to do it consistently."

Like many large property owners, The Life Properties outsources the eviction process to a company that handles everything from issuing notices to appearing before the judge.

After the third of the month, tenants who have missed the rent due date are locked out of the online payment portal, after which they can expect a notice on their door giving them three days to leave, Harkness said.

By the 10th of the month, an eviction notice with a court date is sent to everyone who still hasn't paid or moved out, he said.

While property owners often characterize the eviction process as a costly and time-consuming last resort, filing eviction suits en masse — paying $129 for one filing and $75 for each additional defendant in Harris County — does little to a corporate landlord's bottom line.

"In a lot of places, especially places that make the eviction process fast and cheap, it's really easy for a landlord to file an eviction case as soon as rent is past due," said Peter Hepburn, a researcher at Eviction Lab, a data center at Princeton University.

Fifty households at The Life at Jackson Square have been filed against more than once — some up to seven times — in the last year, according to Eviction Lab data. Whether they pay up and stay or get kicked out, tenants typically have to cover their landlords’ court and attorney costs, which can total hundreds of dollars.

"Not only are they going to end up collecting rent, they’re going to get late fees, they’re going to get the filing fee they paid to enter the case paid off by the tenant, and then the tenant will be less able to move, because it's going to be that much harder to find a different unit," Hepburn said. "This is the business model."

The ease of this process has enabled Houston's eviction filing rate to rise to 10% — meaning one eviction has been filed for every 10 renter households in the past year — close to double the rate of New York City, according to Eviction Lab.

Harkness attributed the high number of evictions at The Life at Jackson Square to its size. But enough evictions have been filed there in the last year to account for more than 1 in 3 of its units — or a filing rate of about 37% — well above the overall rate in Houston.

The knock on the door came for Munroe and her family when she was home alone in mid-March. A deputy constable handed her a notice summoning her and her husband to eviction court. With no apparent prior warning, they were being kicked out despite their belief that they had a verbal agreement to pay their rent late.

The thought of finding another place to live, covering moving costs and possibly uprooting their daughters from their school, all while Munroe was six months pregnant and in the middle of her immigration process, was overwhelming.

She and her husband assumed there had been a misunderstanding, but when they tried to settle up with management, McDonald said they were told the only way to get the case dropped was to pay for the court filing fees on top of the rent, which felt to them like an injustice.

They decided to go to court instead, hoping to find a sympathetic ear from the judge.

"I don't have a lot of money, but I do have rent money," McDonald said, sitting at his dining table on the evening before their eviction hearing. "What judge would let them do that to somebody?"

The sun had just risen when the doors opened to Judge Israel García's courtroom, three miles up the road from The Life at Jackson Square.

On this warm Tuesday in April, García had 367 eviction cases before him.

Some tenants showed up wearing open-toed shoes or shorts and were turned away for not meeting García's courtroom dress code — losing the opportunity to plead their cases unless he put them on hold.

Munroe and McDonald arrived early and sat together near the back. Attorneys, landlords and tenants filled the six rows of wooden benches and waited quietly for the proceedings to begin at 8 a.m. sharp.

Out in the hallway, more people leaned against walls or crouched on the floor, children on laps or in strollers, waiting to hear their names called.

As one of two justices of the peace in the 5th precinct, encompassing more than a million people in west Harris County, García regularly has the county's biggest eviction docket. García, a Democrat, unexpectedly unseated a longtime Republican judge and began his term in January 2021 after spending 28 years as a private attorney.

For the first seven months or so, he paused most eviction hearings, saying it would be wrong to put people out of their homes during a pandemic and that judges should at least help connect tenants with aid.

"The normal run-of-the-mill eviction, I don't believe it should be happening," García told Houston Public Media the month after he took office. "For the court to not even offer you the basic courtesy of a remedy that is there is very shocking. It's just very painful to see."

When he resumed hearing eviction cases in July 2021, García welcomed legal aid workers from the University of Houston, who helped stall illegal evictions while moratoria and other diversion programs were in place. Another group wrote rental assistance checks to landlords and tenants on the spot, he said.

But somewhere along the way, as the emergency of the pandemic subsided, rental assistance ran dry and other protections ended, García's courtroom evolved into the starkest depiction of the legal churn of Houston's growing eviction machine.

His case load quickly mounted. Now, it is not unusual for him to work through 300 or 400 eviction cases every Tuesday. On Valentine's Day, he had 444.

For months he made no effort to connect tenants with lawyers from Lone Star Legal Aid, who took over from the University of Houston and often set up a table at the courthouse offering to represent tenants for free. Their relationship grew hostile after lawyers filed several mandamus suits against García, asking a higher court to review evictions they claim he wrongly approved.

In one such case, a county judge found García had improperly directed a constable to evict a tenant instead of freezing the case for 60 days, the Houston Chronicle reported last July.

García relegated legal aid workers to a small vestibule with no air conditioning between two sets of automatic sliding doors at the building's entrance, away from the side door tenants are directed to enter. When they tried to set up inside the building, García moved their table himself.

"They know that I’m upset with them and they know that I’m not going to tolerate them, and they know that I’m watching them, and they don't go to any other court like this in full force," García said recently. (Legal aid is a regular presence in other courts, though they don't have the resources to cover every docket.)

On this morning in April, García entered the courtroom wearing black robes that amplified his 6-foot frame and an ivory cowboy hat, which he hung on a hat stand before taking a seat.

An attorney with a thick stack of manila envelopes approached the bench, and they began going down the list of cases in a familiar rapid-fire exchange.

The attorney, John Burger, is a regular in Harris County eviction courts, working for a firm that handles eviction cases on behalf of property owners all over the state, including the company that owns The Life at Jackson Square. For each case, a clerk called out the tenant's name three times. Often, there was no response — an automatic win for the landlord.

The six cases on the docket that morning from The Life at Jackson Square all sought to kick out tenants for owing one month's rent. One tenant owed $770. Another $924.

The clerk called Jacqueline Shavers, who was being evicted for owing $990. She approached the judge alone, wearing a red hoodie with long sleeves that almost obscured her hands, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Burger in his suit, blue dress shirt and red striped tie.

Wringing her fingers behind her back, Shavers quietly explained that her mother died and she was only granted a few days of bereavement leave. After she missed several shifts in her grief, she lost her job and fell behind on rent.

She applied to the state rental assistance program but still hadn't heard back, she said, and when she tried to negotiate with management, they moved forward with the eviction anyway.

García leaned forward to hear her story over the whir of the air conditioner. But as a judge who hears hundreds of tales a week about lost jobs, the death of a family member, unexpected illnesses and other misfortunes, he focused on what mattered from his point of view: whether she was behind on rent according to her lease, and if she had been given proper notice to leave.

If so, Texas law gives the landlord the final say.

Sometimes, Burger said, he will agree to drop or delay a case, if for instance the tenant has proof that they did pay rent or if the landlord is participating in rent relief and agrees to grant more time. He recently held off when a pregnant tenant in Dallas went into labor while standing before the judge.

But Shavers’ appeal made no difference.

"March was a hard month for me," she said out in the hallway after Burger went forward with the eviction. Now she owed not just the overdue rent, but attorney and court fees, with five business days to find somewhere else to live before law enforcement could begin the process of clearing out her belongings and lock her out. "I don't have anywhere to go," she said.

McDonald and Munroe watched their neighbor exit the courtroom in tears. They had been summoned that morning for owing $1,067. When it was their turn to approach the bench, they walked up together, and McDonald explained their situation.

García listened and again turned to Burger: "Would you like to give them more time or move forward?"

Unlike in criminal court, people facing eviction in Texas don't have a constitutional right to a lawyer. Fewer than 2% of tenants in Harris County had representation last year, according to January Advisors, leaving the minority of tenants who show up to court confused about how the process works and what limited rights they have.

In Texas, tenants can't withhold rent if a landlord won't make repairs, for instance, and there is no statewide grace period during which landlords must accept late rent before filing an eviction.

"A lot of people just don't understand why it doesn't matter that it's not their fault," said Eric Kwartler, an attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid who has represented tenants in eviction courts all over Harris County. "And in Texas it just doesn't. The law in Texas doesn't care why you can't pay your rent. If you lost your job, had COVID or had a perfectly understandable reason. So we have to rely on legal parlor tricks to mitigate evictions and find technicalities that landlords didn't do."

Ten miles east of García's courtroom, in downtown Houston, Judge Steve Duble has taken a different approach in hopes of tilting the balance of power.

A Democrat elected last fall in Precinct 1, he ran on an eviction diversion platform. "The bottom line is that while a JP must follow the law, there is a lot they can do to help people in need and protect the community," Duble said last year in an interview with OutSmart Magazine.

When he came into office, he cleared out an old closet full of Christmas decorations and set up meeting spaces that legal aid lawyers now use to interview tenants. He urges every tenant to speak with them before their case is heard and encourages landlords and tenants to negotiate.

When Duble began hearing cases on a recent Thursday, the pace ran markedly slower than in García's court. In part, this is because his dockets are much smaller (ranging from less than a dozen up to 50), but it's also by design.

At least three of the handful of tenants that day stood before him with newly acquired lawyers from the University of Houston's legal clinic. When one landlord said they weren't accepting rent relief, a lawyer was able to prove that they had not formally opted out. After some back and forth, Duble delayed the evictions of three tenants.

Sometimes, a little more time is all a tenant needs to get the money together or find another place to live.

"The No. 1 thing that a JP can do is listen," said Kwartler, the legal aid attorney. "Following the law is obviously very important as well. But in order to follow the law, you have to listen first."

Barring changes to Texas eviction laws, Kwartler says there are two partial solutions to the crisis playing out in Houston's courts: rent relief and lawyers.

But not every judge is as accommodating as Duble. Lone Star Legal Aid recently stopped tabling at García's courtroom because the rift with the judge made it impossible to accomplish their purpose, Kwartler said. Another legal aid group has since started setting up there, and García says he's being more amenable to them.

Their absence comes with consequences. A few weeks ago, one landlord at García's court had 38 evictions on the docket.

They won 31 cases by default because the tenant didn't show up. Two other cases were dismissed by the landlord. Four tenants went before the judge and pleaded their case without a lawyer — and lost.

But when the last tenant, who sought help from legal aid, approached with Kwartler by his side, they won and the case was dropped. Kwartler discovered that the landlord was not up to date on their franchise taxes and could not legally evict anyone.

"Legal representation matters," he said. "Giving people time to get legal aid, allowing legal aid personnel into court, it just makes a difference."

The hammer of eviction does not fall equally: About a quarter of all renters in Houston are Black, yet they made up 48% of defendants in eviction court over the past year, according to Eviction Lab.

Even if the case is dropped or the tenant wins, the consequences of an eviction filing are long-lasting. The renter's record carries a permanent stain which appears in landlord background screening software, making it harder for families to find safe and affordable housing in the future.

Properties that do accept tenants with an eviction record will often charge them extra fees to move in.

"If you’re a deadbeat tenant, other landlords would like to know about it so they don't make the same mistake," said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a Republican whose court created the first eviction diversion program in the country in early 2021. "On the other hand, if you hit a hard time and you’re trying to do better but this will be hell over your head for the rest of your life, that doesn't seem right either."

After Munroe and McDonald pleaded their case in front of García, the lawyer for The Life at Jackson Square urged them to try talking again with management, then pushed forward with the eviction anyway.

García granted it, wished them luck and moved on to the next case.

In five days, if they weren't out already, the property could file a writ of possession to forcibly remove the couple, their children and their belongings, kicking them out in a matter of weeks over what felt to them like a minor misunderstanding.

The couple walked out of the courthouse and into the bright sunshine.

At first, they were relieved. The courtroom exchange had happened so quickly, and with so little explanation, that they mistakenly believed the ruling gave them another five days before the eviction was official.

Then they felt indignant. They were done with The Life at Jackson Square. Munroe would look for other apartments that afternoon, even though everything seemed much more expensive than their current rent.

Sitting at their kitchen table about an hour after the hearing, they finally reasoned that they should try to stay until their lease ends in August. It would cost more to leave, and they didn't want to have to explain to a potential landlord why they were in a rush to find a new place to live.

"This was going to be my month of furnishing our place, and then all of a sudden we get hit with this," McDonald said. It baffled him that management had decided to evict them instead of accepting a late rent payment.

"You can make money in the U.S., and it don't matter," he said. "You can have income in the U.S., and it just don't matter."

Later that morning, they walked out of The Life at Jackson Square's front office a cashier's check away from being able to stay in their apartment. Management had come around. The $2,606.61 they owed for March and now April rent was written out neatly on a yellow sticky note.

Relief settled on their faces. They still had not realized the judge's ruling that morning will follow them everywhere.

Elsewhere on the property, the routine marched forward. Around noon, a deputy constable pulled in to The Life at Jackson Square, walked up to a second-floor apartment and knocked firmly on the door.

There was no answer. The family that had lived there since November — a young couple with a 4-year-old and a baby — had packed their belongings into a small U-Haul and fled the day before.

The constable taped a writ of possession on the door, the final step in the eviction process, and walked back to her patrol unit.

"On to the next!" she yelled to property management workers, who hopped on golf carts and led her deeper into the complex.

The crew moved from unit to unit in a rehearsed and relentless pattern.

At apartment 393, they left the remnants of one family's life scattered outside its door: a queen and two twin mattresses. A blue velvet couch and matching end tables. A plastic bin overflowing with women's shoes. A glass dining table and wooden vase holding plastic orchids.

To the neighbors, who watched it all unfold and then came out to pick through the pile, this was just another week of The Life at Jackson Square.

Lucy Tompkins works for the Tribune as a housing and homelessness reporting fellow through The New York Times’ Headway Initiative, which is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor.

Disclosure: Houston Public Media and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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