In a city where renters make up the majority of the population, many Austin tenants are facing unemployment, economic hardship, and housing instability as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, the Austin City Council approved a new measure to delay evictions starting April 1 and give tenants an additional 60 days to pay rent before landlords can post notices to vacate.
“No one should be kicked out of their home or business during a pandemic,” said Council Member Greg Casar, the sponsor of the ordinance, in a press release. “During the pandemic, a lot of things have been stopped in their tracks. But for working families, the bills have not stopped. So, we’re stepping in.”
The ordinance aims to help some of Austin’s most vulnerable tenants, such as low-income and middle-class workers in the service industry. Often living paycheck to paycheck, many of these workers lack substantial savings and were hit the hardest by the cancellation of SXSW, the closure of bars and restaurants, and a sweeping stay-at-home order for nonessential workers.
The moratorium also hopes to provide a public health benefit by limiting displacement during a time when officials advise residents to stay in their homes to curb the further spread of the virus. The council has an option to extend the measure for additional months if necessary.
The eviction freeze comes on the back of an earlier move by officials to suspend any pending eviction-related court proceedings through at least May 9. Meanwhile, Austin Energy and Texas Gas Service have pledged to suspend service disconnections due to non-payments, and the Travis County assessor-collector will indefinitely halt new legal actions against residents with delinquent property taxes.
All of the aforementioned measures, however, do little beyond deferring payments on mounting debts—especially for Austinites that will continue to be out of work for the foreseeable future. In other words, if an unemployed or sick tenant can’t afford one month’s rent now, how will that same individual or family afford three months at the end of May? Some residents are calling on the council to implement some form of rent, mortgage, and utility forgiveness to prevent mass displacement further down the road.
One coalition of community groups is asking the Council to allocate $10 million for direct cash payments to families experiencing acute hardship brought on by the pandemic. The fund could serve laid-off workers unable to file for unemployment benefits because they are considered contractors rather than employees as well as undocumented families that can’t access federal aid due to a lack of a Social Security number.
Others are calling on local officials to do much more to protect individuals experiencing homelessness. Lacking adequate shelter in which to hunker down, this population is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.