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

As Austin-area evictions rise, lawyers are on hand (virtually) to help tenants

Friday, March 25, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Travis County eviction court has looked different during the pandemic. Hearings, for the most part, have been held virtually; people can log in from anywhere and learn if they have to be out of their house.

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

Some of the players are different, as well. Because evictions are civil cases and people are not guaranteed an attorney, it’s rare to see them in eviction proceedings. But as part of a new program funded through the state, lawyers now show up in Travis County virtual courtrooms offering to represent tenants for free.

Supporters say it’s a game-changer, especially as local bans on evictions have expired and rent prices have risen at a historic rate.

“It’s an absolute world of difference,” said Carl Guthrie, a lawyer with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, which oversees the program. “Evictions are technical, right? It’s the law. And a lot of times they’re done wrong, especially when there’s not attorneys on either side.”

‘Showing up, expecting to get evicted’

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

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

“These are people who are showing up expecting to get evicted and didn’t have anyone to help them ... and had no idea there was going to be somebody there,” he said. “Most of the time people are ecstatic.”

On a Wednesday morning in February, one woman signed in to an eviction hearing on Zoom. She was on her phone, standing in a parking lot. Her lawyer explained later she had been on a break from work. (KUT is not using this woman’s name because she did not respond to requests to talk.)

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 call. He asked the judge for more time to look at 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 over Travis County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 that day.

The person representing the landlord objected, saying the sum owed was too great and he didn’t want to wait any longer.

But Duran agreed to pick the case up in a week.

"This is an unfortunate situation for everyone,” he said. “However, the court does recognize the position that Mr. Skaggs is in having just met his client. In an effort to be fair to everyone, the court will grant Mr. Skaggs’ motion for a continuance.”

The hearing was over. Two minutes had passed.

What's the outcome?

This is often how these cases go.

Judge Nicholas Chu, who presides over Travis County Justice of the Peace Precinct 5, said he has seen a large uptick in legal representation for tenants through this program.

While he didn’t have hard numbers when he spoke with KUT, he guessed that before this program, 1 in every 40 renters had an attorney; now it’s closer to 1 in 2.

So, what does this mean for tenants?

Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas says nearly 80 percent of cases it has handled as part of this program have not resulted in an eviction ruling. 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 in to her eviction hearing from work. They reached a deal: The landlord would drop the eviction case if the tenant left the apartment by mid-March.

“The key for (this woman) was to stop the lawsuit so that she wouldn’t have an eviction (judgment) on her record,” Skaggs told KUT.

Even if a renter avoids an eviction ruling, just having a case filed against them can still make it difficult to rent another home.

Chu said he thinks offering legal aid to tenants has made eviction hearings move more quickly in a legal environment where these hearings already move at a fast pace.

“A lot of times before having a lawyer, tenants would explain situations about the nature of the landlord-tenant relationship or things that the landlord didn't do correctly or things that were supposed to be done correctly, that really don't affect the legal case in terms of an unpaid rent case,” Chu told KUT.

When a tenant doesn’t pay rent, state law is pretty clear: The renter has violated the terms of the lease and is eligible for eviction. Details often don’t matter. Having a lawyer present, Chu said, keeps the case to the legally relevant facts and ensures that something a tenant may have missed does not go overlooked.

Emily Blair, executive vice president for the Austin Apartment Association, said while eviction hearings might move quickly, coming to a resolution can sometimes take longer with more lawyers involved. Volunteer Legal Services is paying for this program with $140,000 in grant money from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which received its funding from the state.

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

Earlier this month, Travis County announced it would close its latest iteration of a rent help program after receiving more than 3,000 applications in a week. Tenants are now facing a veritable desert of rent aid resources, since both the city and state have also run out of money for rent assistance.

“Our encouragement to the county is to continue to look at expanding that direct assistance for those residents who are in need because that really is an earlier intervention that definitely we have seen to be a good investment,” Blair said.

Funding for Volunteer Legal Services’ attorney program is set to expire in August. At a meeting earlier this year, Travis County staff said they were trying to find ways to continue having volunteer lawyers for tenants in eviction court.

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

“What’s the actual cost of an eviction on someone’s life? It’s more than having to pony up for a new security deposit or first month’s rent or moving fees,” he said.

People who are evicted from their homes can end up living in their cars or having to move their kids from one school to another with little notice.

“You gotta think of, if you get evicted and you don’t have anywhere to go, where are you gonna park your car? How are you going to keep your kids in school? How are you going to find a job or keep a job if you don’t have a steady address? Where are you going to get your mail?” Guthrie said.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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