When eviction court moved to Zoom, this attorney kept fighting for renters’ rights

During the pandemic, lawyer Jon-Ross Treviño has been on the frontlines of Houston’s eviction crisis, trying to to keep residents from going homeless.

By Daisy Espinoza
Illustration by Lauren Ibañez

Illustration by Lauren Ibañez

Houston lawyer Jon- Ross Treviño, 32, spends his days jumping from Zoom call to phone call with people who are on the brink of losing their homes. He’s struggling to find new ways to build trust with his clients while social distancing. 

“I feel for the person because of the situation they’re in,” Treviño says. 

Before the pandemic, he could look his clients in the eye and listen to their concerns, which he would later reinterpret at court. But now it’s challenging to transmit that same message to a judge who’s tuning in virtually. 

“It’s a lot harder. You don’t have those hand gestures,” Treviño says. “I’m in an apartment complex where I don’t want to be yelling and have other people hearing me.”

Jon-Ross Treviño

Jon-Ross Treviño, 32, stands outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse, where he represented clients before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Daisy Espinoza)

As an attorney, Treviño feels that his public service is at jeopardy since he’s unable to connect with his clients or the court as he used to before the closure.

Houston is the third largest city affected by the eviction crisis, with 16,917 filings since March 15, 2020. That’s according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks 27 cities. Out of those, Houston has the most eviction cases in Texas, surpassing Fort Worth with 8,525 and Austin with 687 cases. 

The eviction process can drag out. It begins with Houston renters breaking their lease and landlords giving the tenant three days to leave their complex before filing an eviction suit. If the tenant stays, the landlord will wait for a court hearing, which takes at least 10 days to process. 

Once the hearing is scheduled, the tenant will be judged and given five days to appeal. Eight days will be added to the timeline if the client decides to appeal, or they’ll receive a 24-hour notice to leave the space before the constable “comes to a tenant’s house,” giving them a “24-hour notice saying that if you’re not out in 24 hours, [constables] will forcibly remove [them] out,” Treviño says.

As an individual, Treviño manages to find energy to work in the same space he sleeps, especially since his bed is five steps from his L-shape desk. He keeps a daily routine that helps him stay on track with his agenda.

“[I] log in about 8:30 a.m., check my emails, respond to anything that’s been outgoing and sometimes that takes to about 11:30,” Treviño says.

Treviño will work at his desk until lunch time when he likes to go for a walk around his downtown loft to stretch from his long hours. He remembers being able to distinguish his daily activities. Now, he is eating, sleeping and working from home.

In order to keep up his spirits, he remembers his 10-year-old self when his father, Ross Thomas Treviño, 64, told him an old story. 

“It’s about two young boys walking along the ocean, and there are starfish as far as the eye can see,” he says.

The story depicts two boys at the seashore helping several starfishes find their way back into the ocean. The boys toss one starfish at a time, attempting to help the thousands of starfishes who are stranded at shore. The boys realize they are unable to help them all of the starfish, but at least they can help one. That story resonates with Treviño to this day as he feels the weight of the most vulnerable on his shoulder.

His clients risk losing their homes because they are struggling to stay afloat, because they’ve lost their jobs or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic.

“It’s very difficult to be a tenant in Houston. I have many clients who are on a fixed income and their rent is almost what their monthly income is.”

Jon-Ross Treviño

“It’s very difficult to be a tenant in Houston. I have many clients who are on a fixed income and their rent is almost what their monthly income is,” Treviño says.

Treviño is conscious that some of the families he is helping barely make enough income to pay for rent. As the holidays approach, Treviño is dealing with the internal pressure as he works long hours to meet deadlines prior to his clients’ court hearings. He’s checking emails, making calls and assisting in cases all while practicing self-care.

Cindy Treviño (mother, left), Jon-Ross Treviño (center), Megan Treviño (older sister, center), and Ross Treviño (father, right).

Treviño poses with his parents, Cindy (left) and Ross (right), and sister Megan after graduating from Rice University in 2011. He says he cherishes this moment spent with the most influential people in his life. (Photo courtesy of Jon-Ross Treviño)

Jon-Ross Treviño (left) and Amir Befroui (right)

Treviño participates with Amir Befroui at a fair hosted by the Mortgage Lenders Association in 2018. Before the pandemic, Treviño went to events like these to share his services with the shoppers at Shapstown Mall. (Photo courtesy of Jon-Ross Treviño)

In his workplace, he hears lots of heart-breaking stories from his clients. He says one of them reached out to Lone Star Legal Aid in mid-September after she missed her court date for her eviction case. Treviño says her case was picked up after she was making arrangements with the apartment complex. 

Some weeks, Treviño finds himself working on two dozen cases or more. For the past eight months, Treviño has been adjusting his at-home habits to productively work under pressure to assist his clients. He manages a team of six attorneys, each with their own cases, while he talks with about four new clients each week.

He says his desire to serve vulnerable members of his community was instilled through his father, who’s been a mentor with the nonprofit Communities in Schools for years. His dad’s example moved him to volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters himself.

“I got into this line of work mainly because of my father. He’s one of the most caring, thoughtful individuals that I know,” Treviño says.

Jon-Ross Treviño

Treviño has not worked in his office since the pandemic. (Photo by Daisy Espinoza)