Local elected officials say they are looking into ways to help residents unable to pay rent or utility bills because of the potential spread of COVID-19.
“If people have to be home from work because they or a loved one is sick and then they can’t pay the bills, we shouldn’t be cutting off their utilities, we shouldn’t potentially have that person losing their house,” Council Member Greg Casar, who represents one of the lowest-income districts in Austin, told KUT.
As of Friday morning, there are two confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Austin.
One concern, Casar said, is people without paid sick leave who are asked to stay home because they have the virus or came in contact with someone who did. He said the city could ask public utility providers, including Austin Energy and Austin Water, to suspend shutoffs as the city has done in the past during heatwaves.
Because evictions are handled by Travis County courts, it would likely be up to the county or state to bend the rules.
“In a public health crisis, what would it look like to delay these evictions, if possible? Or to not hold these hearings?” Justice of the Peace Nick Chu, who oversees Travis County Precinct 5 courts said. In 2017, more than 9,300 evictions were filed in the county.
Chu said judges have to schedule eviction hearings 10 to 21 days from when a case is filed and that they could set them closer to the 21-day limit to give people more time. He also said the state could declare a disaster, potentially suspending court proceedings in Texas.
“The majority of folks that are being evicted are folks that cannot make rent. And the reason for that is because they’ve suffered some kind of financial or economic disaster,” Chu said. “When you include an aggravating factor like a COVID-19 self-quarantine … then what happens is folks have to essentially choose between going to work and making a paycheck so they can live in their place or not getting sick.”
Other cities, including San Jose, have called for a pause on evictions during the pandemic.
“Just from reading news articles this morning, I think other cities are kind of ahead of us a little bit – not a little bit, a lot,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said at a City Council meeting Thursday.
Casar said he’s working with the city’s legal team to see if the city’s local disaster declaration, which was extended Tuesday, gives them any legal power to take a similar move.