Each Wednesday, the wooden benches in the Harris County courtroom of Justice of the Peace Jeremy L. Brown fill with particularly tense people—most are landlords or lawyers bearing folders of unpaid bills. Meanwhile, defendants shift nervously in their seats, quietly crying or muttering prayers. On other days, Brown fines speeders or marries lovers. But on Wednesdays, he hears from people who come to plead for their homes.
Last year, at least 62,548 people faced eviction in Harris County, records show. And four out of the 16 Harris County zip codes that averaged at least 1,000 evictions each year are in Brown’s precinct, according to court data analyzed by the Observer.
Despite the number of people affected, there are no recent studies focused on evictions in Texas, said Marcia Johnson, a Texas Southern University law professor. The lack of baseline data makes determining how to prevent evictions a real challenge, she said. For example, Harris County evictions increased dramatically from 55,000 cases filed in 2015 to 76,000 cases in 2016, and then remained higher from 2017 to 2019. No one knows why.
“When you start looking at the numbers and what’s going on around the country with respect to evictions and homelessness, it screamed out that we look at policy changes,” Johnson said.
Brown, who grew up in Harris County, has for several months been assembling stakeholders in Precinct 7 on Houston’s south side, which includes predominantly black neighborhoods, to brainstorm ways to reduce or prevent evictions. The group includes landlords, local officials, social service providers, and attorneys. Leaders have already tapped limited homeless prevention funds to help a handful of tenants and are beginning to explore partnerships with landlords to reduce costly eviction cases (which generate court fees, legal fees, and lost employee time).
The goal is simple: to reduce court-ordered evictions, which can be almost as damaging to tenants as a felony record in terms of finding another decent apartment, Brown said. Studies show that evictions often lead to homelessness.
Brown begins his hearings by gently instructing everyone that Texas eviction law gives him little wiggle room. If tenants failed to pay rent and received proper notice, he must side with the landlord—even if an apartment has a leaky roof or faulty air conditioning. Under Texas law, rent cannot be withheld in lieu of repair.
Eviction court is a busy and emotional place. On a typical Wednesday, 40 or more people arrive. Last year, 40 percent of tenants lost by default judgment; others lost after brief hearings, and very few managed to negotiate to win dismissal.
In Brown’s court, the few tenants who attempt to fight evictions are summoned, along with landlords, to plush front-row seats for quick hearings. Delandra Bracy appeared so stunned by the speedy exchange that she simply whispered “thanks” after Brown issued an authorization for eviction to proceed.
Alfouseeymi Nomoko, a tall man in a pink polo shirt, faced a similarly disappointing outcome when he told Brown he skipped the $1,299 monthly rent to buy plane tickets to Mali to attend his father’s funeral. After the judge ruled in favor of his landlord, he cried in the parking lot. “I had to get there,” he said.
Kortnee Clark, the mother of a newborn, had already been granted a rare extension because of unusual circumstances: The landlord posted her first past-due eviction notice when she was hospitalized after giving birth prematurely and suffering a postpartum infection.
“I’ve been in the hospital off and on for six weeks,” she told Brown. Her tiny son remained in the NICU at Memorial Hermann Hospital, she said. She told Brown she was working and requested yet another extension.
“By law, I have to follow the timelines,” Brown replied. “Unless the landlord is willing to reset?” The landlord was not.