“Possession to the plaintiff”
Every day dozens of people who can’t pay their rent walk into a Travis County courtroom.
They sit in front of judges who listen to their stories even when the details of those stories – a pediatric nurse whose roommate unexpectedly left, an elderly couple robbed by a friend’s son, a mom short on rent by $283 – can’t figure into their judgments. They sit beside bailiffs who keep order in the courtroom by handing out tissues.
But a lease is a contract and the law is clear.
“I’m awarding possession to the plaintiff,” is a phrase often heard in eviction court. That means the tenant has five days to move out.
Justice of the Peace Nick Chu presides over much of Central Austin, including downtown. On busier weeks, he sees about 20 eviction cases; judges in Southeast and Northwest Austin see twice as many.
“Evictions are probably the worst part of my job,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of tragedy. … As a judge, you think you may have all this power, but you’re bound by the law, and a lot of times there’s not a lot that you can do.”
In the vast majority of eviction cases that go through the courts, a tenant has not paid rent. Evictions for lease violations or simply because a landlord wants someone out are uncommon, judges say.
Last year, landlords filed 9,313 evictions in Travis County courts. Judges ruled nearly half of these cases evictions, while the rest were dismissed or appealed to a higher court.
Once a tenant is late on rent, the landlord tapes a note to the apartment door – called a “notice to vacate” – letting them know they’ll file for eviction in court if the tenant has not paid or left in three days.
“I will tell you that most landlords would be thrilled if in the face of a notice to vacate the tenant either paid or voluntarily vacated,” said Corey Rogers, a real estate lawyer with Warren Law Firm in West Lake Hills. Rogers, who has represented landlords in eviction cases, said his clients would rather not go through the hassle and court costs associated with an eviction.
For tenants, the feeling is mutual, but the effects of an eviction endure. Tenants advocates say many renters choose to leave once they receive a “notice to vacate” because potential future landlords can see an eviction filing even if a case is eventually dismissed.
Once a landlord files an eviction, the court sets a date. In eviction court, lawyers are rare – for tenants and landlords. Landlords typically have representation, but it’s often a property manager or a representative from an eviction management company who, for a fee, will handle the entire process.
If a case is ruled an eviction by a judge, the tenant has five days to move out. If the tenant does not leave in that time, a landlord can ask a constable to forcibly remove the tenant and hire movers to carry the tenant’s belongings to the street. The whole process – from failing to pay rent to being kicked out by a constable – can take as little as two weeks.
While eviction filings have risen over the past five years, the percentage of these cases that result in a court-ordered eviction has fallen. In 2014, judges ruled in favor of the landlord in 52 percent of eviction cases; in the first three months of 2018, that has dropped to 46 percent.
Judges and attorneys don’t have a clear answer as to why. But they have guesses: Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Fred Fuchs said the rise in eviction management companies, which simplify the process, makes cases easier to file but also easier to dismiss if a tenant pays up before court.
“Police! Constable’s office!”
Travis County Deputy Theresa Stewart works both ends of the eviction process, from serving papers to kicking out tenants.
On a Wednesday in late July, Stewart attempted to forcibly evict an elderly man who uses a wheelchair from an apartment complex in Southwest Austin – but he was already gone when she and another deputy showed up. He left behind most of his things, including furniture, a running fish tank and a pamphlet titled, “Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience.”
At a second address, three tenants were still in the house when Stewart arrived. Deputies banged on the door: “Police! Constable’s office!” They entered with their guns drawn as is routine on kickouts. Two men and a woman scrambled out, disheveled. The woman wore pajamas.
Constables stood by as several men carried the tenants’ things out to the curb. Two of the tenants loaded what they could into an old Honda Civic. They said they had nowhere to go for the night; they’d probably sleep in their car.
Stewart said she encourages tenants to try to broker an agreement with their landlords before an eviction ends up in court. But pride, she said, gets in the way.
“They’re embarrassed when they can’t pay their rent,” she said. “Rather than deal with it, they just keep hoping that they can come up with the rent or they can find a way, and you’ll hear that phrase a lot. ‘I was hoping I could find a way.’”