Despite pause on evictions, motel resident faces uncertain future

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — John worked 10 hours last Tuesday and pulled in a grand total of $12 as a rideshare driver.

Now that he’s making a fraction of his normal income during the COVID-19 crisis, he worries he may not be able to pay for the motel room he lives in with his brother.

John has lived in his car before, and he fears he may again if he’s locked out of the motel.

On Thursday, Austin’s City Council approved an ordinance establishing a 60-day grace period for evictions. Eviction is a multi-step legal process, and landlords are required to serve a written “notice to vacate” three days prior to filing for eviction. The new ordinance halts all eviction proceedings through May, but it isn’t clear to John if the moratorium protects him.

John’s residence in a motel leaves him in a legal gray area, according to one expert.

John, who asked KXAN not to use his real name and exact motel of residence for fear of retaliation, said he doesn’t have a written agreement with the motel. Many Central Texans find themselves in a similar situation: they can’t rent apartments due to spotty income, previous evictions or criminal records. They resort to living in motels and are often vulnerable to becoming homeless.

John said he has a non-violent felony on his record from another state, and he has not been able to find an apartment that would rent to him.

Big Exceptions

Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and adjunct professor of law at the University of Texas, said guests in hotels and motels are not tenants. Eviction rules do not apply to them, but there are some “big exceptions.”

“If an individual has lived at a motel for months or years and pays rent monthly, they have established a monthly tenancy requiring that the owner use the eviction process. This must be determined on a case-by-case basis,” Fuchs said. “Absence of a written lease is not decisive. The length of the stay and frequency of payments, services, receipt of mail, all factor into the equation.”

John, who lives in the room with his brother, said he has struggled to get a definite answer from local advocacy groups on whether he is a protected tenant or not. He’s lived permanently at the motel for nearly three months. He pays the daily cost of $47 to $51 roughly every other day. John and his brother worry if they both leave at the same time they may come back to a locked door.

In the past two weeks, KXAN has received several emails from people concerned about being removed from motels they were staying in.

Fuchs offered the following advice for someone who has been locked out of a motel but believes they are a tenant:

“If an individual has been locked out of a motel and believes that they have established a tenancy and owner insists that they get out and will not use court process, they can call the police, explain they have established a tenancy and are not merely “hotel guests” and ask the officer to tell the owner to use court eviction process. If the officer says no, they should not argue with the officer, but go to the justice of the peace in the precinct in which the property is located and file a sworn application for a writ of re-entry under section 92.009 of the Texas Property Code. The justice of the peace must then decide on an ex parte basis whether it appears the individual has a tenancy and, if so, can issue an order directing the owner to allow the individual back into the unit. This can be done without a lawyer, because the justice courts have forms available and are open to hear writ of reentry cases.”

Travis County Precinct Five Justice of the Peace Nick Chu said, on behalf of all JPs, he could not give legal advice or comment on a “fact scenario” that could appear in their courts.

“If an individual feels they are the subject of an unlawful lockout then they should seek legal counsel or contact the Justice of the Peace for precinct where the lockout occurred to seek possible legal remedies, such as a writ of re-entry,” Chu said in an emailed statement.

The Austin Police Department said it has not been tracking the number of calls it receives for motel lockout incidents.

“Motel evictions are more of a civil issue than a criminal one. Anecdotally, we occasionally get a call when a person does not vacate a room. We usually stand by to keep the peace and that is it,” said APD spokesperson Lisa Cortinas.

Eviction moratorium

While evictions are paused, rents are still due.

Sandy Rollins with the Texas Tenants Council, a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization, said tenants are still obligated to pay. Failing to pay rent could cause a default and a violation of a tenant’s lease agreement, she said.

Fuchs advised anyone facing the possibility of missing a rent payment to contact their landlord and try to work out an alternative payment plan.

Resources for tenant, rental assistance and the eviction process are listed below.

Travis County Justice of the Peace information on eviction hearings:

Information regarding rental assistance resources:

Austin Tenant Council’s information on the eviction process:

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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