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How some Texas landlords go outside the legal eviction process to force tenants out

Nicole Hernandez looks through her phone for photos of the home she was evicted from Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Nicole Hernandez looks through her phone for photos of the home she was evicted from Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Dallas.

Earlier this summer, Nicole Hernandez said she came home to the room she rented in Garland to find the door kicked in and her window air conditioner unit smashed.

Her landlord had just taken her to court to evict her. The judge gave Hernandez about a week to appeal or to pack and leave before the constables showed up. But Hernandez said her landlord was trying to make it unbearable to stay another day.

Temperatures that week were over 100 degrees. She drenched herself in water to keep cool while she tried to figure out what to do.

“It felt like my head was just tight. My temples were hurting and my head, it was just so swelled up," Hernandez said. “The heat was making me very sick.”

Hernandez said this was the latest in a months-long string of harassment aimed at forcing her out.

Eviction is a formal, legal process, and Texas law outlines the process and timing for delivering notices, filing a case in court, and administering the trial. Nonetheless, tenants’ rights groups say landlords often go to extreme measures to push their tenants out of their homes.

“They want to make it as miserable as possible for that tenant to stay so that they'll leave voluntarily so that they don't have to go through the trouble of filing an eviction and waiting the time to get them out,” said Mark Melton from the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center.

 Nicole Hernandez said she arrived home on July 11, 2023, after her eviction hearing to find her air conditioner smashed. Temperatures topped 100 degrees that week.
Courtesy of Nicole Hernandez
Nicole Hernandez said she arrived home on July 11, 2023, after her eviction hearing to find her air conditioner smashed. Temperatures topped 100 degrees that week.

Texas offers fewer tenant protections than many other states, and evictions play out more quickly here than in many other places, Melton said. But sometimes landlords use hardball — often illegal —tactics to force out tenants instead.

At times, these tactics are deployed at the same time a formal eviction is being pursued.

Melton said it's not uncommon to hear from clients whose landlords illegally shut off their air conditioning or electricity, or towed tenants’ cars when they fall behind on rent.

“I'm not … telling you the things that are happening are true across the board in every apartment complex in Dallas, because they're not. But there is a significant portion [of places], primarily around people that are poor, where they are just being abused day in and day out with no recourse,” Melton said.

Some cases are more extreme: Melton described a case where a landlord put nails into two-by-fours and placed them in the front of the driveway in the dark to pop the tenant’s tires when they pulled in.

In another case, he said a landlord hired local gang members to intimidate a 20-year-old single mother to scare her into leaving.

“There's always going to be folks ... that will do things that are way outside the bounds, and they really should not be in this business at all,” said Jason Simon from the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, whose members are landlords and property managers in Dallas and surrounding counties.

Simon said most of his organization’s members want to provide safe and habitable housing and to follow the law. But he said he does hear about bad actors like this. He thinks they’re most common in small-scale rental situations outside of the professional rental industry -- like when someone rents a room in their home to someone they know.

A chicken and a duck

For Hernandez, the eviction case and her smashed air conditioner came several months after her landlord first threatened to evict her.

The landlord didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hernandez said she had worked for her landlord’s home health agency before moving into the house in Garland in September 2022. She rented an upstairs bedroom for $700 per month, sharing the house with the landlord’s son and his fiancé.

Hernandez had been struggling, she said, living out of her SUV. She’d sent her kids to live with family out of town. She hoped the new arrangement would give her the stability she needed to get her life together and be able to move her kids back in with her this summer. She started working at PetSmart to train as a pet groomer.

In January, Hernandez agreed to take care of her landlord’s pets while she was out of town – three dogs, a duck, and a chicken. When she arrived at the landlord’s home, Hernandez said she found the chicken dead and the duck was nowhere to be found.

The landlord was furious, Hernandez said.

“She was telling me I needed to get out, that that was her only duck. And it just kind of got bizarre after that,” Hernandez said. “So, yeah, it's kind of insane.”

Hernandez said she was fired from the home health business, and her landlord slipped a notice under her bedroom door saying she was to be evicted.

Attorney Jenafer Davidson, left, and her client Nicole Hernandez looks through photos of the home she was evicted from Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Attorney Jenafer Davidson, left, and her client Nicole Hernandez looks through photos of the home she was evicted from Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Dallas.

In February, Hernandez stopped paying rent. She thought she’d need to save her money if she was forced to move, and she was down a job.

Texas law requires landlords to file a formal lawsuit and prove they have the right to evict the tenant for breaching their lease agreement before they can legally kick a tenant out. That process can take a few weeks in Texas; longer, if a tenant appeals.

But the eviction case wasn’t filed until June. Instead, Hernandez said she was subjected to months of harassment, intimidation, property destruction and trespassing.

The tires on her car were cut, she said, and paint thinner was thrown on the car. The house’s AC was blocked off from her upstairs bedroom, she said, and her door had been busted in. Her fan was stolen. For three weeks, when sewage backed up into her bathroom, no one came to fix the plumbing. She said the landlord and her son have trespassed in her room frequently.

Hernandez blames her landlord and her family members. She said the landlord told her they aren’t responsible.

An array of tactics

Texas law requires landlords to offer a healthy and safe home, and Simon said the apartment association offers trainings and certifications to help landlords comply with the law. He said members of the apartment association agree to follow a code of conduct that requires them to follow the law and respect tenant rights. Those who violate it, he said, can be blocked from using the association’s resources, including a standard lease agreement that is vital to many of the businesses, he said.

But when landlords fall short, Simon said tenants sometimes reach out to the apartment association for help.

“We will intervene in those situations and work to the best of our ability to see that it's successfully resolved,” Simon said. “In many cases, we’ll successfully resolve those kind of issues in favor of the tenant, even though we're a landlord association, so to speak.”

But Dewey Marshall, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union, said there are a lot of cases that just aren’t clear-cut. He said he gets fewer calls about obvious violations of law than from tenants who feel they’re wrongly being driven out of their homes, but aren’t certain or would have trouble proving that their rights are being violated.

The tenants’ union gets tons of calls about landlords refusing to make legally required repairs, but differentiating between retaliation, negligence, or just a shortage of maintenance workers can be challenging, Marshall said. Regardless, it often forces tenants to leave. While tenants do have legal mechanisms to force repairs, many don’t know how to navigate the system, and it takes a while.

Marshall also hears about landlords shutting off electricity or air conditioning when a tenant falls behind on rent. In a lot of lower-cost apartments, tenants pay the landlord directly for utilities. If a tenant is up to date on their utilities payments, but falls behind on rent, they have the right to keep their electricity.

“What some landlords will do is take the money that's supposed to go towards electricity and... pay that money towards rent. And it's really hard to prove where the money is supposed to go,” Marshall said. “So then the landlord shuts off the electricity, the AC, and the tenant is essentially …ousted from their unit without a legal [eviction] process.”

A tenant who questioned her landlord about an unusually high water bill recently reached out to Marshall after her water was shut off, he said. After she complained, her landlord declined to renew her lease.

While this appears to be illegal retaliation, Marshall said proving retaliation is hard because Texas landlords aren’t required to give a reason for not renewing a lease.

Marshall said Texas renters need better protections to be able to address retaliation and prove when it’s happening.

Incomplete data

Evictions have surged since pandemic-era protections and financial assistance were ended and rents spiked. For half of the 18 months since January 2022, eviction filings in Dallas County outpaced pre-COVID averages, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

An eviction court paperwork in Dallas County.
Yfat Yossifor
An eviction court paperwork in Dallas County.

The Fort Worth and Houston areas saw even greater increases in eviction cases compared to before the pandemic, putting Texas cities near the top of the nationwide list of cities that the lab tracks, according to Eviction Lab researcher Daniel Grubbs-Donovan.

But those numbers only reflect formal eviction cases filed in Texas courts.

“There’s a whole other world of informal, extrajudicial actions landlords take to force people out of their homes, but none of that is tracked in our data,” Grubbs-Donovan said.

Grubbs-Donovan said we simply don’t know how many people choose to leave their homes upon receiving a notice to vacate, which a landlord must post before filing an eviction case. The numbers also don’t count people pushed out by pressure tactics like cutting off air conditioning, or those displaced when landlords refuse to renew a lease.

What is clear is that housing in North Texas isincreasingly unaffordable: Across North Texas, renters need to earn around $50,000 or more to afford even a modest one-bedroom apartment. Now, 90% of very low-income people are stuck paying budget-busting rents.

What’s also clear is that eviction and displacement typically leaves people worse off: They’re more likely to become homeless or live in lower-quality housing, more likely to become unemployed, their physical and mental health declines and their children do worse in school. Evictions are not just a consequence of poverty, Grubbs-Donovan said; they actually drive poverty.

“It makes it more difficult to keep your income stable, to keep your education stable,” he said. “Everyone needs stable housing as a place from which to stand.”

Melton and Marshall said Texas needs more robust renter protections in law to even the playing field. Simon said he probably disagrees with some of the changes they want. But he thinks there’s room for improvement, especially around making tenants’ rights easier to understand.

Simon said the most significant way Dallas and other cities can help renters is by funding permanent rental assistance programs so a renter’s cash crunch doesn’t turn into a housing crisis.

An ongoing process

Nicole Hernandez is appealing her eviction ruling, which means she’s allowed to stay in the unit until the case is decided, provided that she pays rent into the court registry each month. A judge ordered the landlord to replace her air conditioner, but her lawyer gave her one.

She’s looking for a place she can afford, but is staying put in the meantime.

“I don’t have family here, just my kid’s grandma. I don’t have anywhere to go,” Hernandez said.

When she moved in, Hernandez hoped her home would provide the stability to get trained as a pet groomer and start earning enough money to rent a house where her children can live with her.

Instead, she said those plans have been derailed. She’s behind on her training, and has had to transfer stores.

“It just flipped my world upside down,” she said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.
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