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Inside Dallas eviction court: Pro bono lawyers help tenants stay in homes during pandemic



DALLAS, TX  — Tensions are rising nationwide between landlords and tenants. Despite a federal moratorium, landlords have filed more than 342,000 evictions during the pandemic, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

More than 34,000 have been filed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone.

Those facing eviction have a final chance to stay in their homes by making their case to a judge.

Jasmin Zuniga brought her 3-month-old daughter, Delilah, to court. “I wasn’t paying my whole rent completely and that’s when the late fees started,” she told the judge.

Her hearing lasted seven minutes. When it’s over, Zuniga is allowed to stay in the apartment after Mark Melton, a tax-attorney-turned-eviction-expert, agreed to pay the landlord $1,100 in back rent. Melton is working eviction cases for free in the small Dallas County courtroom.

Zuniga said the last few months have been “stressful, especially with a newborn.”

“Staying up all night and then worrying about how am I going to have the rent money. There’s nowhere to go,” she said.

Kimberly Johnson, a mother of four, was also at court to fight her eviction after her cashier job hours were cut in half. Despite paying back the rent in full, the landlord still filed the eviction.

“You’re not looking for handouts and you work and you do what you gotta do. You teach your kids to do the same thing, to have responsibilities. You are not trying to get on the phone and tell people that you need help. This whole thing is just overwhelming,” Johnson said, crying outside of court.

Melton added: “Everyone is nervous. The people that I talk to are just scared to death about what’s going to happen to them, their families.”

Texas has more than $1 billion in funding for rental assistance. More than 130,000 people have applied for the funds and over 16,000 have been approved. But so far, just over $112 million — less than 10% of the funds — has been dispersed to tenants in need, according to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

“If those checks never come, they will be foreclosed on,” said Ian Mattingly, the president of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas.

Mattingly believes the economy will fully recover, but it will take time. “Undoubtedly, the economy is recovering. But equally undoubtedly, it’s going to take a long time to make up the roughly $54 billion in unpaid rental funds. And some of the debts that have been racked up by property owners mirror the amount of debt that’s been racked up by renters,” he said.

Melton and close to 200 attorneys have helped more than 7,000 tenants avoid eviction. Last year they started Dallas Evictions 2020, a group of pro bono attorneys providing eviction assistance during the pandemic. Through donations, the group has helped families pay back rent and hire legal representation.

The work is endless and overwhelming — a feeling Melton knows all too well. He was evicted from his home when he was 21.

“When I get these phone calls, all these people and, you know, they’re going through that right now, like it takes me back to that place. And it’s just I can’t say no,” he said.