Tuesday, 02 June 2020 09:27

As TX Businesses Reopen, Short-Lived Coronavirus Safety Net is Dismantled

Written by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune


There’s a “presumption that well, we’re allowing businesses to be open, so these things no longer need to be in place,” said Jonathan Lewis, an analyst with Every Texan, the liberal-leaning Austin think tank formerly known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities.


“I don’t think now is the time to start reducing the response. If anything it’s time to keep thinking about how we can go further in this,” he said. “If we’re not thoughtful about how we respond to the needs of Texans right now, we’re only going to end up making our problems worse in the long run.”


Advocates are particularly concerned about evictions.


The Texas Supreme Court halted evictions during the height of shelter-at-home orders, but allowed them to resume in late May as the economy reopened in stages. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the Austin-American Statesman that “the pandemic hit like a tornado, and we thought a statewide standstill would allow landlords and tenants to stop and take a breath.”


“But the state’s trying to reopen,” he said, “and we’re all going to have to deal fully with the hard issues that we face.”


As is so often the case in Texas, social supports differ across the state. Certain cities, like Dallas and Austin, created their own eviction protections, and federal law protects many tenants through August.


That still leaves Texans like Phoenix Morgaine, whose landlord put a “for rent” sign in the yard of her Belton home even before evictions could legally proceed, afraid of being dragged into court and forced to sleep in their cars.


Some cities have offered limited rental assistance programs, but those funds dried up quickly and no statewide alternative has materialized.


The utility shutoff protections Texas imposed were also a patchwork from the start. Slated to last six months, those protections have already been clipped, and now are only guaranteed through mid-June. But many Texans were never protected anyway, because the state agency doesn’t regulate all electricity or water providers.


Amy Allen, who works in property management, was shocked when Hawley Water Supply, just north of Abilene, shut off her water during the pandemic. Her company hadn’t been evicting tenants; she hadn’t realized anyone would take such drastic action during times as difficult as these.


“I called and I said, ‘So how are you legally able to do this?’” she said. “Do they answer to anyone?”