Dallas’ COVID-19 eviction ordinance— which gives tenants 21 days to respond to a Notice of Possible of Eviction and to apply for rental assistance to pay their landlords — is tied directly to the governor’s COVID-19 Disaster Declaration. Gov. Greg Abbott renewed that declaration again Saturday, for another 30 days. That was expected because it means funding for our state from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mark Melton, the attorney who founded Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center spoke before the Dallas City Council last week as members considered whether to keep or discontinue the ordinance independent of the governor’s order.

Some councilmembers say it’s time for the ordinance to end. Melton and others say that now, while our county still has $15 million rental assistance in the coffers, is not the time to let it lapse.

“This ordinance helpful, not because it allows people to live for free but because it protects tenants from getting kicked out without time to find alternate housing,” Melton told the councilmembers.

Melton says in a follow up call — and has gone on record with us before saying — he understands that property owners deserve to be paid rent. He still feels that we should keep the ordinance in place and give tenants a chance to get right with their landlords and keep their homes. He thinks a compromise is possible, if it comes down to it.

“There’s room for agreement here,” he says.

Those leading an effort to quash the eviction ordinance (an apartment association, “is a good guess,” Melton says) have valid concerns.

They worry the renters are getting that extra time provided by the ordinance but are not actually applying for assistance, which delays the inevitable and doesn’t benefit anyone.

“I agree with that concern. My proposal is, amend the ordinance to say you have to give this pre notice, but the tenant then has 10 days to respond in writing that they have applied for rental assistance,” Melton suggests. “If they have not, move forward with your eviction. If you’re gonna ask landlords to basically finance this housing for a couple of months, they should at least have some assurance that [funding] is going to flow partly their way.”

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn says the [COVID-19] situation has changed so much since the ordinance went into place and that the protections it provides could be inadvertently harming tenants.

“We’re one of the fastest markets for rent increases, and adding to it by trying to be compassionate, people we are trying to help, we will actually push out, because we are not making good policy,” Mendelsohn said at the meeting.

“Nothing she said was based on any form of fact,” Melton says.

The City Council did not take any action on the matter last week, presumably awaiting the governor’s decision on the disaster declaration extension, but the issue is expected to resurface soon.

One problem that has become glaringly obvious to Melton and his team as they have represented renters in eviction courts during federal and local eviction moratoria is that, too frequently, justices of the peace and landlords simply do not follow the rules.

That is the main reason why his DEAC has won about 96% of the eviction cases they have represented, according to Melton. The other reason is that as long as those rental assistance funds are available, he and his staff are able to use that to negotiate with landlords.

That is why that 21 day notice really matters, he reiterates.

That said, at the rate Dallas has been distributing rental assistance — and thanks to folks like Ashley Brundage at United Way and organizations such as Under One Roof and also the City of Dallas, our disbersement has been more efficient than many other parts of Texas — we could run through funds in the next 60 days or so, Melton guesses.

We went through the first $40 million of funds in maybe four or five months, he reasons.

In fact some counties that have been too slow to distribute rent relief funds have seen their funds rescended. According to Texas Tribune, the U.S. Treasury Department seized $1.9 million in unspent rent relief from five Texas counties — Jefferson, Brazoria, Hays, El Paso and Nueces — as well as the city of Laredo because local officials didn’t spend the money fast enough.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming article about Mark and his wife Lauren Melton and their remarkable work in Dallas courtrooms and area nonprofits.