The Texas state court system is signaling that it will no longer enforce a federal order aimed at stopping evictions during the coronavirus pandemic. That could clear the way for landlords to push ahead with tens of thousands of eviction cases that have been on hold.

The timing could be particularly painful for many families, coming after Congress has approved billions of dollars to help people pay the rent they owe to avoid eviction but before the vast majority of renters have been able to receive any of that money.

Legal aid attorneys are raising the alarm that the state is about to allow a wave of people to be put out of their homes, with no place to go.

"We've had a failure of leadership that's going to result in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Texans becoming homeless in relatively short order," says Mark Melton, who heads up a pro bono team of 175 volunteer lawyers in Dallas.

"It's devastating," says Christiane Daugherty, a 60-year-old technology consultant who lost her job last year when COVID-19 hit. Her adult son also lost his job at a restaurant, and they moved in together to try to survive.

Daugherty just landed another job and has applied for rental assistance. But she had fallen behind on rent, and this past Friday, a judge ruled her landlord could evict her.

"We're just starting to get on our feet. This would just kill me," says Daugherty, who worries that losing her home will also mean losing her new job. "I work from home, and I'll have no money to go get in a hotel or anything."

What has changed is that an emergency order issued by the Texas Supreme Court has just expired. It had required judges to enforce a federal eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under which landlords cannot evict people like Daugherty if they sign a declaration saying they have no other good housing options.

The CDC's order is aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 from people being forced into more crowded living situations such as homeless shelters or doubling up with other families.

After the Texas Supreme Court didn't extend its directive, an advisory body to the Texas courts went further. The Texas Justice Court Training Center issued guidance essentially telling judges it's not their job to enforce the CDC's order.

"Courts are no longer authorized by the Texas Supreme Court to abate (put on hold) cases based on the CDC eviction moratorium," it reads. Groups that are trying to prevent unnecessary evictions are worried.

"Renters who are behind on rent are on their own," says Christina Rosales, deputy director of Texas Housers, a prominent affordable housing group. "That's the message the Texas Supreme Court is sending, and we're gravely concerned."

Even a major landlord group seems a bit baffled by the ruling. David Mintz, vice president of government affairs with the Texas Apartment Association, says he has been reaching out to the Texas Justice Court Training Center.

"We have asked them to clarify their guidance," Mintz says. "We believe that the courts do have the ability to consider CDC declarations that are provided to them."

Despite the changes in the Texas courts, there are landlords who may continue to abide by the CDC order. And Mintz says many want to give tenants the chance to apply for and get rental assistance money since that can be in the best interest of both landlords and tenants.

On paper, landlords could still face hefty fines and jail time for violating the CDC rules on evictions. But Melton says in reality there has been virtually no enforcement for landlords who violate the CDC order. He expects a significant number of landlords will now push ahead with evictions.

"I think we just stepped off a cliff that we really didn't want to step off," Melton says. And already he says he's seeing cases where judges are allowing landlords to evict people who had been protected by the CDC's eviction order — people like Daugherty. Melton's group is helping her appeal her case, but she's very worried about what's going to happen next.

"Sometimes I just stay up all night and it just feels like I'm being run over by a truck when I get up in the morning and start working," she says. "It's certainly not a great way to start a new job."

Housing groups are calling on the Texas Supreme Court to extend its emergency order to give people like Daugherty time to get rental assistance money and stay in their homes.

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