Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, was the most evenly politically divided major county up until 2016. Its presidential contests were close and there were plenty of Republicans elected to local office. That all changed this past November. More than three-quarters of the voters in the county employed the straight-ticket voting method and mostly voted Democratic. As a result, Democrats swept all 59 judicial elections.
The change may be most dramatic in civil court, or at least one section of it. Prior to the election, Republicans held three of the four judgeships in Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1. Now, they have none. That has made landlords nervous. “One of the things they deal with is eviction,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “The Republican judges had an almost universal practice of siding with the landlord.”
George Barnstone, the one Democratic judge in the section who served before the election, tends to side with the tenant. He argues that the deck has been stacked against them. “Here in Texas, our landlord-tenant statutes have been drafted and adopted by lawmakers in the pockets of the Texas Association of Realtors, the Houston Association of Realtors and the Houston Apartment Association,” he says.
Now Barnstone has a contingent of colleagues likely to take his side. Rather than evicting tenants who have fallen behind on the rents, this likely means getting landlords to instead agree to a reasonable repayment schedule. By gaining a promise of repayment, the landlords could come away with cash they wouldn’t otherwise receive through a straight eviction. If tenants ultimately vacate the premises, whether voluntarily or by eviction, landlords would be able to bring in new ones. In exchange, tenants could walk away from a bad situation without an eviction judgment on their records, which can severely hinder their chances of finding another place to live.
It all sounds good. But area landlords -- wary about criticizing a judge by name -- say that Barnstone’s approach is hardly a win-win. Tenants may agree to pay back rent, but they are often slow in actually doing so, or fail to put up any money at all. Seeking remedy in repayment cases means that landlords have to start their slow slog through the court system all over again. Some complain that Barnstone acts less like a neutral arbiter and more like a de facto tenants’ rights activist. “We appreciate Judge Barnstone’s desire to be an advocate for tenants’ rights,” says Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association. “Like any party to any judicial proceeding, we just want judges to follow the law.”
Barnstone, while noting that he owns rental property himself, certainly sounds like a tenants’ advocate. “It’s destroying people’s lives,” he says of eviction. “If you were trying to create a permanent underclass, this is how you would do it. I’m just trying to level the playing field to be fair.” Perhaps the new Democratic judges won’t all feel as strongly as Barnstone does. But he’s confident they will. “I recruited them,” he says. “They’ve all agreed to follow my lead.”