Harris County Commissioners expand eviction defense program to all 16 Justice of the Peace Courts with new funding for legal aid services

20 Dec, 23

Harris County, TX — In a unanimous vote Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners approved $4 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to expand the Eviction Legal Aid Program to all 16 of the County’s Justice of the Peace Courts.  
Eviction filings in Harris County have continued to rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, in 2021, Harris County invested an initial $1 million in ARPA funding to provide pro bono representation to low-income tenants facing eviction proceedings.  
In March 2023, Harris County invested an additional $4 million in ARPA funding toward contracts with Lone Star Legal Aid and Neighborhood Defender Services to serve eight Justice of the Peace Courts that handle the largest share of eviction filings in Harris County. A great need for these services persists throughout the County. In fact, both organizations had a target to assist at least 2,000 people by November 30, 2023—but surpassed that goal, serving more than 7,200 individuals.  
The latest funding expands Harris County’s Community Services Division’s Eviction Legal Aid Program to all 16 Justice of the Peace Courts through awards of $2 million each to Lone Star Legal Aid and Neighborhood Defender Services. The amended contracts will now run through December 31, 2024.   
Since 2020, an estimated 30% of all eviction filings in Harris County occurred in Precinct 4, the second highest of the four Commissioner precincts.  From 2020 to 2022, eviction filings in Precinct 4 more than doubled. 
“As a lawyer and former judge, I am deeply committed to improving the quality of justice in Harris County and to ensuring equitable access to legal aid,” Commissioner Lesley Briones said. “Expanding this investment to all 16 Justice of the Peace courts will help drive a fairer judicial process for eviction filings across Harris County. I am grateful to the Biden Administration for the ARPA funding that is being used to help our lower-income families.”  
“Stable housing and secure immigration status are not just moral imperatives, they are cornerstones of a thriving economy. Immigrant and eviction legal defense services keep people employed, children in school and communities vibrant,” said Thao Costis, Executive Director, Harris County Community Services Department. “These services represent smart investments that generate returns in increased tax revenue, reduced strain on social services and a more productive workforce.”  
“Lone Star Legal Aid is dedicated to providing legal services to eligible Harris County tenants facing eviction,” shared Dana Karni, Ligation Director, Lone Star Legal Aid. “As tenants with legal representation becomes more commonplace, we are seeing an exponential impact benefiting the community. On behalf of the Eviction Defense Coalition, Lone Star Legal Aid appreciates the continued funding from Harris County for our work to support housing stability.”  
“Neighborhood Defender Service has long recognized the need for dedicated civil defense services as part of a comprehensive public defense program,” noted Rick Jones, CEO and Executive Director, Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS). “And our partnership with Harris County underscores the indispensable role of legal services in shaping the very fabric of community health, safety, and overall well-being.” 
“No one should face the threat of eviction alone,” stated Meenu Walters, Managing Director, NDS. “Since we opened our doors in May, our dedicated team has attended community events, hosted know-your-rights sessions, and most critically – we’ve provided advice, counsel, or full representation to nearly 2000 Houston residents at risk of losing their home. We’re working to ensure that all individuals receive the support they need to safeguard their home and maintain stability.” 
In October 2023, Commissioners Court unanimously approved a request from Commissioner Briones to create two positions for the County Civil Courts at Law Eviction Appeal docket, including an associate judge. Jermaine Thomas will serve as the associate judge and will begin hearing eviction appeal cases on January 8, 2024.  
“Most evictions occur because working families have fallen on hard times and are unable to afford their rent. Yet, depending on the method of appeal, a tenant must pay at least one month of rent and continue paying at the usual rent period, often monthly, until the appeal is decided,” Commissioner Briones said. “The new eviction appeal docket will shorten the wait time to disposition for eviction appeal cases, which will help avoid undue financial and mental stress from a lengthy legal process and provide tenants another opportunity to improve their outcomes. It will also support landlords looking for faster resolution to cases, as well as assist other litigants in non-eviction-related civil cases who are waiting for their day in court. The bottom line is that this investment will enhance fairness and will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the administration of justice in our County.”