Op Ed: Our Leaders Can't Leave Houston Tenants Behind

Keisser Alvarez and son.
Keisser Alvarez and son. Photo by Sunee Kate Quirante
When my family and I moved to Texas from Honduras seven years ago, we envisioned a place where we and our one-year old son could achieve our dreams. Yet the past year has challenged us in ways we never expected. Some of these circumstances were beyond anyone’s control. But others were created by a broken housing system that left us on the brink of homelessness. No one — in Texas or anywhere in this country — should have to live in these conditions. We need our elected officials at all levels of government to work together to fix this.

The hard times began for us when COVID-19 struck last March. Before the pandemic began, I cleaned houses around Houston. But since then, it has been virtually impossible to find work. My husband’s employment has also been severely impacted by the pandemic — he now only works a few hours a week. This made it difficult for us to pay rent on time and in full.

We managed to stay afloat, but then tragedy struck when our apartment burned down. We still don’t know what caused it — the property manager didn’t tell us. But it was horrible — the one safe haven we had from the pandemic was completely destroyed in a matter of hours. What’s worse is we had to live in our destroyed apartment until we could be relocated to another unit.

When the property manager finally did relocate us, the conditions were only slightly better than our apartment caked in smoke and ash. The sink was covered in rust, the toilet didn’t work, and the kitchen sink pipe was clogged. My son began having skin problems, which the pediatrician said was from the dirty carpet. While trying to survive in this rundown home, Winter Storm Uri struck. We had no water and electricity, and had to stay with a friend who had a gas stove when we couldn’t heat the water for my baby’s bottle. Those days were especially challenging, to say the least.

Over the past year, we’ve also had the property manager lock us out of our unit because we were behind on rent — he also tried to do this to some of our neighbors. When this happened, I turned in a signed copy of the CDC declaration form saying that we are protected from being removed from where we are living. But now that the Texas Supreme Court is no longer authorized to pause eviction cases, even though the Biden administration extended the eviction moratorium through the end June, we’ll be at risk of losing our apartment once again.

Unfortunately, we are far from alone. There are countless other families like ours in the Houston area that have had similar experiences because the city lacks local protections for tenants. Apartment owners don’t have anyone holding them accountable for unjust landlord practices — there is no one checking to see if the conditions of these places are good enough for people to actually live in. There should also be consequences for landlords who get tenants to leave using aggressive tactics — putting locks on doors, cutting off power, or towing cars from the apartment parking lot. This is completely unacceptable, yet there’s no one holding them responsible. And the Texas Supreme Court letting statewide protections for renters expire makes this even worse.

Despite all of this, I still have hope. Most of this comes from my son, who is a bright light in our lives. But I also have hope that we can make change at the national level. Canceling rent is one solution that would give people like me and my neighbors more time to financially recover without the fear that we’ll soon be homeless. Through my time being a member of the Houston-based community group Texas Organizing Project and engaging with my neighbors, I have learned that we cannot do this alone. If we claim to care about all Houstonians living in safe, sanitary and structurally-sound homes, we need to push for housing laws that prioritize the rights of people, not the bank accounts of property management companies. At a time when much is out of our control, this is one thing we can change together.

Keisser Alvarez is a Houston tenant, immigrant mother and member of the Texas Organizing Project in Houston.
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