Late one night about six weeks ago, attorney Mark Melton showed up at an apartment complex in Dallas with the police. He had received a call about a tenant who was being intimidated into leaving their home. They were behind on rent but protected from being evicted thanks to local and federal protections set up during the pandemic.
The tenant told Melton the owner of the apartments had enlisted the help of a local gang to try to scare them into leaving. He packed the tenant and their children into his car and paid for them to stay in a hotel until he could offer further assistance.
Though they are no stranger to struggle, Melton and his family of four have come to live comfortably in Dallas over the years. He's a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, helping clients negotiate tax-efficient business deals and has been involved in local politics, working on campaigns and becoming chairman of Dallas' judicial nominating commission, which interviews and recommends candidates for municipal courts.
In April, he began providing legal advice on Facebook to people facing eviction.
After a while, he realized he couldn’t meet the massive demand for such services. So, he started Dallas Evictions 2020, recruiting as many as 150 lawyers to offer pro bono legal advice. The group has prevented over 4,000 evictions, Melton says.
In normal circumstances, a landlord can hand an eviction notice to any tenant who’s a dollar short on rent, Melton says. The notice usually says that they have three days to vacate, which often scares people enough to leave voluntarily. The notice starts the eviction process. Then the case gets a hearing, and if the judge rules against the tenant, a constable shows up a week later to remove all of their belongings. But during the pandemic, there are some protections.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put a temporary halt to evictions during the pandemic, and a city ordinance, drafted by Melton, gives Dallas residents 60 days to prove their finances have been harmed by the virus and come up with some money.
Much of what Melton’s group does is informing tenants of these protections. Without this, he says, people either don’t show up to court and get evicted, or they show up, don’t provide the right defense and still lose their home.
"If you have a lawyer with you, your likelihood of getting evicted is much lower because we know the rules." – attorney Mark Melton
“I think in the last eight months we’ve only lost two hearings out of well over a hundred just because if you have a lawyer with you, your likelihood of getting evicted is much lower because we know the rules,” Melton says.
Melton says he relates to the people his group helps because he knows what it’s like to be down on your luck. When he came to Dallas in 1999, he was leaving behind a broken life in Tulsa. At 21 years old, he had a wife and two children and found himself one of 5,000 workers to be laid off from the company that employed him. The couple didn’t have college degrees or job prospects.
They tried to make ends meet for a few months but eventually ran out of money and lost their house and one of their cars. They sold what they could, gathering about $1,500, packed the kids and whatever they had left in their Honda Civic and hit the road for Dallas, where they thought more opportunities would be waiting for them.
A few weeks later, the family of four was hunkered down in a small, 450-square-foot apartment, and Melton had found a job making cold calls trying to sell what turned out to be really bad oil and gas investments.
On the advice of Glenn Reuben Simmons, a Dallas human resources executive and consultant, the Meltons enrolled in college. They lived in student housing and took all the classes they could, working odd jobs on the side, and the children attended daycare often paid for by scholarship funds.
Eventually, Melton made it into the law program at Southern Methodist University and landed a job with the law firm Hunton & Williams when he graduated. After about eight years of struggling, the family was more or less back on top.
Now, a defender of tenants during a global health crisis, Melton says the work has begun to take an emotional toll.
“I spend most of my days talking to people who are having the worst day of their life,” he says. “It’s difficult for some of that pain not to rub off on you.”
He’s started seeing a therapist once a week and says sometimes he just sits in his house with the lights turned off and cries for a couple of hours because the work weighs on him.
“But I always remember that if I shut down or break down and quit, there’s going to be more people living on the streets as a result, so I just can’t,” he says. “So, you just take the next step and just keep going and hopefully one day things will self-correct.”
Though he carries on, Melton says the only way lawyers win their cases is by pointing to the protections. The CDC’s moratorium runs out at the end of the year. Then, all Dallas residents will have to protect them from eviction is the city ordinance, which doesn’t apply to the rest of the county. Even then, they only have another 60 days to come up with the money.
Melton says that at this point, a massive wave of evictions in 2021 is pretty much inevitable. He doesn’t expect President Donald Trump’s administration to extend the moratorium. “I think we’re probably going to see tens of thousands of evictions in the city of Dallas in the first quarter of next year,” Melton says.
Even if President-elect Joe Biden offered assistance at the start of his term in January, it would be far too late for far too many people, Melton says.
Because of this, he’s started to pivot the way he thinks about addressing the eviction crisis. It’s become less about prevention and more about dealing with the aftermath.
The city is also preparing.
Dallas’ Office of Equity and Inclusion recently announced a partnership with the nonprofit Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas to provide help for people facing eviction. The organization gives free civil assistance to low-income residents in over a hundred North and West Texas counties.
The initiative will give Legal Aid the funds it needs to provide full legal representation, outreach and community education and referrals to partner agencies.
Melton continues to fight the crisis on multiple fronts. He's involved in national efforts to get the CDC moratorium extended. He also is trying to get the Texas Supreme Court to reissue an emergency order that halted evictions statewide. When all else fails, Melton stops at the bank and picks up cashier's checks to help people pay their rent and give them more time to save their homes.