Eviction isn’t just a legal notice — it’s a profoundly challenging experience that hits families hard, turning lives upside down and trapping them in a cycle of poverty. In places like Houston and Harris County, thousands face this struggle yearly due to high rents, low wages, and a lack of affordable housing.
Facing an eviction court is tough, but the average court journey only amplifies the stress, making a stressful situation even worse for those already struggling. The Stanford Law School’s Justice Innovation Lab notes that many tenants are wary of eviction court and feel that “the court is a protracted, exhausting endeavor. Balancing that experience with a family, a job, and other obligations is challenging and sometimes impossible.”
Our recent pilot of an eviction intervention program earlier this year, done in partnership with The Alliance and select Harris County JP Courts, unveiled similar challenges faced by Harris County tenants. This pilot showed that navigating the court experience is not only legally challenging but packed with avoidable pain points that can further dehumanize the experience.
When we prioritize the human side of the eviction court system, we not only inject empathy into the process but also witness a noticeable difference in how these hearings unfold.
The Court Journey
With the rapid rise of Harris County evictions after the expiration of the CDC eviction moratorium, more people than ever are navigating Harris County courts as they handle their eviction cases. Our pilot focused on six JP courts from September 2022 to April 2023, and we found the journey was similar across all courts: full of roadblocks, stress, uncertainty, and unnecessary obstacles. Overall, we observed that each point or “stop” in the eviction court journey could benefit from some human-centered intervention– leading to better tenant outcomes and a smoother court process.
The formal eviction notice is considered the first step in the eviction process–and it can be a jarring one.
Some tenants may choose to self-evict at this point to avoid the stress of the court process or because they have a limited understanding of their rights or what they should bring to court. During this pilot, we scraped eviction docket data to perform targeted outreach via email and text up to a week before the filed court date. The messages included helpful reminders about the importance of showing up for court, legal aid information, what to bring to court, information on tenant rights, and more.
Fifteen percent of tenants on the eviction docket were contacted, and those who received this outreach had a 38% reduction in default judgments. (Figure 1.)
More challenges await if a tenant does decide to go to court. The tenant must arrange to go, like take off of work or find childcare, travel there, locate the courtroom, wait an undetermined amount of time for their hearing, and receive all court instructions in English only,
Both major and minor interventions here work wonders. Sometimes, simply rearranging a space or adding wayfinding signage is an easy way to center the human experience of navigating an unfamiliar space. The Precinct 1, Place 2 wayfinding project assisted those entering the building to find navigators in the lobby.
Having navigators who provide friendly outreach and straightforward, visible cues eases tenant stress and provides valuable resources. In some courts, navigators wore t-shirts saying “Ask Me For Help” and were even allowed to introduce themselves to the court to give information about their services. In others, they could check the status of a rental application in real-time or provide other assistance in the lobby.
Navigators provided practical information about the court process, helped tenants access available social services such as housing services, rental assistance, job training, and legal aid, and discussed the steps after a judgment had been issued– including available legal aid for appeals & referrals to rehousing assistance.
Warm referrals worked well for the navigators– they referred 75% of cases to the Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. (Figure 2.) In a post-pilot survey, navigators named rental assistance as their most valuable resource tool, as more than 20% of ERAP applications originated from in-court navigators.
Whatever role the navigator played, it was vital to ensure they were accessible, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. The visibility of navigators and clarity surrounding their services is essential to mark the difference between them and court employees.
After a judge issues a judgment–sometimes in as little as 90 seconds–tenants leave the courtroom to a lobby of support and resources. Most tenants are in high emotional states and leave immediately, but available navigators were there to provide empathy, direct them to housing resources, or refer them to housing counselors.
Navigation clients were also much more likely to appeal and win their cases. They were two times more likely to appeal their judgments– and have representation from a defense attorney. Both appeals and representation increased the possibility of favorable case outcomes– navigation clients with a defense attorney on the record were 13 times more likely to have their eviction case ruled in their favor. (Figure 3.)
Human-centered interventions during the eviction journey work– and the outcomes prove it. They ease the daunting court experience and connect tenants with essential support. In our pilot, this approach doubled the likelihood of tenants’ success in winning their cases or receiving support services.
We witnessed a tangible difference in outcomes by emphasizing empathy and practical assistance. Centering the human experience within the legal process isn’t just compassionate; it’s crucial for ensuring fairness and support for those facing eviction.
Read the full pilot retrospective, “Innovation in Action,” here.