Out-of-work Dallas renters may soon get some relief from overdue rent

Renters in Dallas who have been financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic may soon feel the heavy weight of overdue rent temporarily lifted off their shoulders.

The Dallas City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 Human and Social Recovery and Assistance voted unanimously Thursday to send the council an ordinance that would require landlords to give residential tenants a chance to catch up on rent before evicting them.

The committee passed the ordinance with a recommendation for approval at next Wednesday’s meeting.

The ordinance requires landlords to provide tenants with a “COVID notice of possible eviction” and allow them to pay the rent and other associated costs within a certain timeframe. It also encourages landlords and tenants to reach an agreement on how to get rent paid in a timely fashion.

Renters would also have the option to provide evidence that they are unable to pay rent due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ordinance does not protect tenants from evictions related to other lease breaches or criminal activity and does not include any rent forgiveness measures.

Landlords who initiate eviction proceedings despite knowing of a tenant being financially affected by COVID-19 would face a penalty of up to $500.

The ordinance would expire after either the city or state declarations of disaster are terminated.

The ordinance’s impact will be limited, however, said Jason Simon, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas. He said the ordinance does little because there are already moratoriums evictions at the county, state and national level.

Simon also said the ordinance may conflict with state law as well as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent statewide order.

“We believe that state law and property code does not allow cities to regulate this way,” Simon said. “Cities are overreaching and getting into state issues.”

But councilmember Adam Bazaldua, who proposed the ordinance, believes the ordinance fills a gap in state law and is so narrowly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic that it avoids any conflict with state law.

“I do believe we have a solid policy on our hands,” Bazaldua said. “Everything in this ordinance is temporary and has very specific wording tied to the declarations of disaster.”

Bazaldua also said the ordinance is necessary because it requires landlords to provide additional information to tenants about their rights.

Though Dallas County suspended evictions until May 18, renters in Dallas who are out of work have still been getting pressured by their landlords to pay rent. The Texas Supreme Court also halted eviction proceedings until April 30.

Close to 750,000 Texans have applied for jobless benefits since mid-March due to the temporary closures of businesses and operations across the state.

Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union, said the nonprofit has been getting frequent calls and online inquiries about pressure from landlords to pay rent, though many of those inquiries are coming from residents who are out of work due to the pandemic.

“Landlords are putting the pressure on tenants to get paid,” Rollins said. “They’re reminding people that they’re going to push for evictions as soon as the courts reopen and I have no doubt that some landlords will follow through.”

Texas law requires landlords to provide tenants with a written notice asking them to vacate a rental unit by a certain date. If a tenant fails to move out in the given time, a landlord can file an eviction lawsuit in a justice of the peace court.

Tenants are in a position where there’s no way out of this situation without an extension of time to make income, Rollins said.

“It’s not reasonable to expect people to pay rent on time when they can’t work,” Rollins said. “Not everyone is going to qualify for employment and some who do still haven’t even been able to get their unemployment aid.”

Simon said that the city should be focused on crafting a rental assistance program to help area families and that he hoped this could be the start of addressing an issue that goes beyond the current pandemic.

“It helps everybody. It helps the landlord get the rent paid and it helps tenants stay in their homes,” Simon said.

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