Students unable to afford rent due to COVID-19 could face eviction after Sept. 30

Lauren Goodman

Students in off-campus apartments struggling to pay rent may find themselves at risk for eviction next month as the Travis County order halting eviction proceedings expires Sept. 30. 

The Justices of the Peace in Travis County issued a moratorium in July on eviction proceedings and writs of possession until Sept. 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Austin Mayor Steve Adler also issued an order prohibiting the removal of tenants until Sept. 30, saying the removal of tenants would “destabilize the economy and will contribute to additional person-to person contact.”

Political communications sophomore Jose Puente tried to end his lease at his apartment complex after realizing his financial aid award would not cover his living expenses. Puente said because his mother is the sole provider for him and his two siblings, he struggles with rent.

“I (was) just trying to bring (in) enough money to get myself here,” Puente said. “I sold some items that I had. My mom sold clothes that she had. We tried selling anything that we could.”

UT Legal Services for Students told Puente there was no way to terminate his lease agreement. 

Martin Serra, an attorney at Legal Services for Students, said lease disputes are determined on a case-by-case basis for each individual, and a tenant likely would have to pay their rent as promised in the contract.

“There's nothing in the Texas Property Code or other provisions of the law that would permit a tenant to terminate early just for being unable to afford (rent),” Serra said.

While tenants have an obligation to pay rent, Serra said the extension gives tenants a temporary stay of eviction.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton criticized local governments for deferring evictions in a written opinion letter Aug. 7. 

“The aspects of the orders … attempt to rewrite broadly applicable state law governing eviction procedures and replace them with a patchwork of local orders that are inconsistent across the State,” Paxton said in the letter. 

According to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Texas scored a zero out of five on the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, which compares states based on their responses to pandemic evictions and housing.  

Heather Way, a UT clinical law professor specializing in affordable housing, said Paxton’s opinion has no impact on city law since the Texas Supreme Court gave local Justice of the Peace courts discretion in resuming eviction proceedings.

“Whether or not the city has authority (to delay evictions) or not, it doesn’t really matter,” Way said. “The (Justice of the Peace) courts clearly have that authority under state law.”

Puente’s friends raised enough money for Puente’s rent for the first month through Twitter. Even though he got a job at the University Co-op, Puente said he still doesn’t know if he can afford next month’s rent when the order expires.

“I plan on trying to work as much as possible to raise enough money to at least pay half of the rent and help my mom out,” Puente said. “If all else fails and I can't pay for it, I plan on moving back home and … dealing with the process of being evicted.”