Janet, a Houston renter, lost her job as a home health care worker back during the February winter storm. When she couldn't take the icy roads to work, she got fired. She had already lost jobs and income during the pandemic and it wasn't long before she couldn't pay rent.
She immediately researched what resources were available to her, while continuing to look for work. Her landlord filed for eviction, but she sent a form to the landlord and the court to pause the eviction under a federal moratorium. She also applied for two rent relief programs: one administered by the state of Texas, and another jointly administered by Harris County and the City of Houston.
Her landlord contested the form in court, arguing Janet wasn't eligible for protection. But Judge Sharon Burney ruled she could stay — at least, for now. With the federal CDC moratorium currently set to expire at the end of June, Janet feels like she's in a race to catch up on rent before she runs out of time.
She's repeatedly asked her landlord to apply with her for rental assistance, but said he has refused to participate. (Janet’s landlord did not respond to a request for comment.)
Janet — who asked Houston Public Media not to use her last name out of fear of retribution — said she isn't alone. The landlord hasn't participated in the rent relief program for other tenants either, she said, and she's afraid they may have given up. She'd nearly given up herself, but is fighting to avoid homelessness.
“There are other tenants who would not have received assistance because (the landlord) refused to get on the bandwagon,” Janet said. “Throwing people out in the middle of a pandemic — how dare they.”
The Houston area has been an eviction hotspot during the pandemic, with close to 30,000 cases filed since last March, according to the data firm January Advisors. Even as many people get vaccinated and look to a return to offices, the economic fallout from the pandemic continues to push many renters to the brink of eviction.
But while many Houston-area landlords are interested in the rent relief programs — the Houston-Harris County program database shows more than 18,000 properties are covered by participating landlords — others are not taking part. By December, tens of millions of dollars had been left unclaimed. And by the end of 2020, about 8,000 applications were set aside because of landlord refusal, according to the program’s managers.
Brian Cweren, principal attorney with the Cweren Law Firm, has represented many Houston landlords who are reluctant to participate. One reason, he said, is fatigue — in some instances, tenants have owed rent for months now. Some are also wary of conditions and red tape, and would rather get the eviction judgment than wait for rent relief to come through.
"It would be like waiting to get a seat at a popular restaurant and the chef says, ‘look you could sample this stuff over here at this table and it's great entrees and it's free, or you could keep your place in line,'" Cweren said. “And many people are saying ‘I'd rather just pay the fee and keep my place in line.'”
Last year, the local rent relief programs required more concessions from participating landlords, who had to agree not to evict any residents at a property if they accepted rent relief for one of the units.
"Yes, there were some landlords that took that program, but this ripple of fear went through the Houston housing community," Cweren said.
As a result, many landlords decided the money wasn't worth the tradeoff.
Currently, those conditions no longer apply when landlords participate in the Houston-Harris County program. But Cweren said if the government really wanted the programs to work, they'd be making direct payments at the courthouse.
"Talk to the landlord in the hallway while the case is on hold for a few minutes,'" Cweren said. “Turn to the tenant — ‘do you agree?' ‘Landlord, do you agree on this number? Here's your check.'"
When the program was first set up in 2020, it did not allow for payments to go directly to the tenant. But Rene Solis, chief program officer with Baker Ripley — one of the organizations managing the Houston-Harris County rent relief program — pointed out that renters no longer need landlords to participate. Renters facing eviction can get the exact same amount of relief whether or not their landlords participate.
In 2020, Baker Ripley created a tenant registry to keep track of applicants whose landlords refused to participate in the rent relief program. At the end of the year, around 8,000 people were on that list. Months later — as more landlords have enrolled and renters can now receive direct relief without landlord participation — that directory is now down to around 4,900 renters.
However, there's a lot of demand.
"We have a $159 million program and we received $202 million in requests," Solis said.
With around $10 million going out each week, 75% of applicants are already going through the process. The program has allocated $70 million so far, helping nearly 19,000 families.
Meanwhile, some renters are still waiting.
"Most folks have not had to wait that long,” Solis said. “It really depends on two factors. One is your priority, which is essentially a designation of your vulnerability. And the second thing is just the lottery, when your name gets pulled out based on your priority."
Janet, the Houston renter, is still waiting on her relief. But on Wednesday she finally had some good news to share: she got a preliminary offer from the state rent relief program — she might receive three months past rent and three months future rent — and she's about to begin a new job.
But the entire process brought her added stress and anxiety, she said.
"I've gone days without sleeping," Janet said. "You know? You can't sleep. You don't know what's going to happen."