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Law School News

NBC National News Flies to Houston to Film Documentary on Illegal Evictions with STCL Houston Clinics’ Attorney

Producers from NBC National News flew to Houston this month to interview Eric Kwartler, a public interest attorney in South Texas College of Law Houston’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics, about a topic that has gone viral across the nation in recent weeks — the illegal eviction of thousands of residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to Kwartler, the production team interviewed Gaspar Gonzalez — a student and editor-in-chief of the South Texas Law Review — who is assisting with the Clinics’ eviction cases. NBC News also spoke with one of Kwartler’s evicted clients who was forced to move her family of four and their belongings to a friend’s spare bedroom after losing her job due to ramifications of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this scenario is a common one in Harris County — and across the United States.

Kwartler, an expert in eviction law, notes that the record-breaking unemployment caused by the pandemic has resulted in thousands of tenants in Harris County facing an inability to pay for essential needs, such as housing, food, and medication. These families continue to find themselves helpless and without recourse, struggling to navigate a complex legal system with little knowledge of their rights under the law.

According to Kwartler, “There has never been a more crucial time for the involvement of pro bono tenants’ lawyers in evictions.”

Kwartler and his team of law students in the Civil Practice Clinics of the school’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics have made it their mission to become part of the solution. Together, they have spent countless hours gathering and reviewing the more than 5,000 eviction cases filed in Harris County between Feb. 1 and June 18. The team created a spreadsheet of these and subsequent cases, which they shared with other Houston-area legal pro bono organizations, including Houston Volunteer Lawyers and Lone Star Legal Aid.

In a recent letter to Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Kwartler wrote, “The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act also has added a level of complexity to many of the evictions currently on file. The protections it provides are byzantine, and for many tenants it actually is impossible for them to find out whether these protections even apply.

“There have been over 3,200 eviction cases filed since the moratorium began on March 27, and my team of attorneys and students has reviewed them all,” he said. “Many tenants who signed CARES Act compliance affidavits either relied on vague sources or didn’t state the sources on which they relied at all. Some of the affidavits were demonstrably false.”

Complicating matters is the great number of eviction cases already overwhelming the dockets of Harris County Justices of the Peace. According to Kwartler, several Justices of the Peace are so behind they are still hearing eviction cases from March. “Eviction dockets are routinely exceeding 20 cases in several courts — and one court had a docket June 18 with 57 cases set at once.”

He adds that, in this COVID-19 environment, just going to court could pose a significant danger to tenants, and they may not even know that an attorney can help arrange a virtual hearing via Zoom.

“Short of the judges grilling the landlords about their affidavits on their own, the only way to ensure that the CARES Act is being followed is to increase tenants’ access to pro bono legal counsel,” said Kwartler. “An attorney can question any plaintiff who claims not to be subject to the CARES Act to verify that a claim is substantiated, and thereby enforce federal law.

“While reviewing the data we have seen hundreds of cases that have no affidavit or one that should be challenged, and that number will just grow,” he said. “Without more capacity for representation, all we will be able to do is watch as many of those tenants slip through the cracks of the system.”

Kwartler advised Ellis that one solution is to unburden grant-funded attorneys from current restrictions their grants place on the types of clients and cases they can take, including income caps and limitations based on immigration status.

“Unrestricted attorney funding would solve that problem and immediately increase access for vulnerable tenants to pro bono counsel,” he said.

Regardless, Kwartler and his team of students and fellow pro bono attorneys will continue their mission of education and advocacy for many of Harris County’s most vulnerable residents.