Austin Renters Facing Eviction Can Soon Get Help Through A New Counseling Service

Apr 26, 2018

David Jones has been renting his apartment in North Austin for four years. He's grown an impressive herb garden on his front porch: Rows of parsley, oregano and thyme line one side. He’s a veteran on a fixed income, and his housing story hasn’t been an easy one.

“In 1999, I was renting a house here in Austin,” Jones said. “I came home on a Friday evening, and there was a notice to vacate – eviction notice – on my door. I panicked, and I moved all my stuff by that Monday.”

Jones said he had just given his landlord 30 days' notice that he planned to move out. The landlord seemed to want him out sooner.

Like many people facing eviction, Jones had to think fast. He was able to find a friend to crash with on short notice, and he rented storage space for his belongings.

Jones also had to go to eviction court. When a landlord files an eviction suit against a tenant, they both have to appear in court and present their case. A judge ultimately rules on which of them is entitled to possession of the space. Jones says the eviction suit against him was ultimately dropped, but it still shows up in his records.

“The end result has been that that’s a mark on my credit report,” Jones said, “and every time I move into another apartment, I have to get a letter of recommendation, which to me is very unfair because nobody cares that I’m a veteran. They want to talk about the eviction, and I have to justify why I’m creditworthy or someone that they would want to rent an apartment to.”

Jones now serves on the board of the Austin Tenants Council. The nonprofit is supporting a City Council resolution brought by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to create a new counseling service for people facing eviction. Council members unanimously approved the resolution at Thursday's meeting, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair not present for the vote. 

"An advocate could do a lot to be able to mediate with the landlord and also to assist a tenant during the eviction hearing itself."

There are still questions about how funding for the program would fit into next year's budget. The city manager is expected to return to council with a proposed budget amendment in June. 

Often, tenants are forced to navigate the complicated legal process on their own. The resolution calls for creating a system of counselors to help review eviction notices, educate tenants about the process and accompany them to court.

Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the Austin Tenants Council, says you don't have to be a lawyer to advocate for clients in eviction court.

“This is a place that we think advocates can do a lot of good,” she said. “The advocates here at the Tenants Council, for example, have a really strong familiarity with the eviction process, legal notices, most of the leases used in town, and so an advocate could do a lot to be able to mediate with the landlord and also to assist a tenant during the eviction hearing itself.”

Gonzales said it’s tough to track just how widespread eviction is because not all cases are filed in court, but in Travis County, more than 7,700 eviction petitions were filed from 2014 to 2015. Data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab shows there are about six evictions a day in Austin.

Speaking at a City Council work session Tuesday, Tovo said she has looked to similar counseling programs across the country that have been effective.  

“[Those efforts are] a very important way of how we help people keep their housing,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the City Council's vote.