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Harris County Allocates Additional $4 Million for Legal Aid and Eviction Services Amid Rising Cases

In a bid to address the surge in eviction cases exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris County commissioners have approved an additional $4 million in funding for legal aid and eviction services. This decision, made during a meeting on December 19, aims to provide support to qualifying applicants across all 16 eviction-handling courts in Harris County.

Evictions in Texas are overseen by Justice Courts, where cases are filed based on the location of the property in question. Appeals, on the other hand, are adjudicated by the Harris County Civil Courts at Law, with only four county civil courts available to handle these appeals.

The devastating impact of the pandemic has seen a significant rise in evictions, particularly following the conclusion of eviction assistance and moratorium programs. Harris County’s Office of Administration notes that the approved funding brings the total to $8 million for two key agencies handling the legal needs of eviction cases—Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm offering free legal services, and Neighborhood Defender Services.

Prior to this funding expansion, legal aid services were only accessible in half of the eviction courts. Since the initiation of the eviction legal defense program in April, over 5,600 individuals have received assistance, including over 1,000 who received extended legal representation.

With this new funding, Harris County residents facing eviction can now seek legal counsel at all 16 courts, providing crucial support during a challenging period. The Housing Legal Services Initiative (HLSI), established by Harris County in 2021, has played a pivotal role in offering short-term, noncash disaster relief to qualifying applicants, including consultations, referrals, and legal services.

The need for such initiatives is evident in the rising number of eviction appeals cases reported by the Harris County Civil Courts at Law. In the first 11 months of 2023, there were 7,371 cases—a stark increase from the pre-pandemic caseload of 3,568 recorded in 2018. The surge in cases since 2022 prompted LaShawn Williams, Harris County Civil Courts at Law administrative judge, to acknowledge the impact on the court’s ability to hear all civil cases in a timely manner.

Harris County, faced with eviction filings surpassing pre-pandemic averages, has recorded over 121,000 evictions filed by landlords in the span of seven months from January to July 2022. A mere 2% of tenants had legal representation in these cases, underscoring the need for increased legal aid and support.

In a positive development, a $25,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation was awarded to the Harris County Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 court in December. This grant will be utilized to establish a Legal Resource Center, providing individuals with access to technology, digital resources, and legal forms. The center is expected to open in 2024 and aims to address the needs of self-represented litigants, ensuring equitable access to justice for the community.