Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday announced the city would pull out of a joint COVID-19 housing stability task force, a move that came as a shock to task force members who were meeting as the news was announced.
Touting the work done by the task force and its co-chairs, apartment developer Ric Campo and justice of the peace Jeremy Brown, Turner said Houston City Council would focus on housing stability going forward.
“While I am proud and thankful for the work that has been done by the Task Force members, it is now time for the City Council Committee on Housing and Community Affairs to continue this work for the City of Houston,” read a statement from Turner.
But news of the task force’s dissolution had not been shared with its members, who were caught off guard.
Members of the task force were meeting at the time of the announcement, and many only found out after the mayor’s press release around 10 a.m.
“I had planned on being in the meeting and was there, but the press release came out at I think 9:59 and our meeting starts at 10 o'clock,” said task force member Zoe Middleton, of housing nonprofit Texas Housers. “So not a lot of time to digest the news.”
The housing task force was announced on June 12, a partnership between the city and county to address public health by preventing evictions and stabilizing housing in Houston.
One of the biggest steps taken by the task force was to draft an eviction grace period ordinance, to help Houston renters after federal protections expired in August. The members unanimously recommended that Turner immediately support such a move, hoping to have it in place by Aug. 1.
But the mayor rejected that idea, instead calling for state and federal officials to intervene — even as some members of the Houston City Council publicly supported it.
In Houston, the largest city in the country without any protection from evictions, renters make up half the population. Other cities including Austin and Dallas have enacted similar protections for renters. But state Attorney General Ken Paxton, in nonbinding legal guidance, said in August that local governments did not have the authority to stop or delay evictions.
Turner did push for two rounds of rent relief funding, through programs that involved landlord participation. To receive the relief, a tenant’s landlord must have first signed up for the program, followed by a period in which tenants could then apply for the funds.
The first round of $15 million in rent relief was claimed in less than two hours. A second round of relief was launched in mid-August, and the city has since said it would expand the program to include tenants whose landlords have not signed up — though that has not yet occurred.
“Tens of thousands” of renters have been helped by the assistance, Turner said Friday.
Turner credited the task force with helping the city and county set up the second round of rent relief funding — a program totaling $60 million in aid.
But Dana Karni, a task force member and an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said that funding program hasn't been working as intended because the most vulnerable renters haven't been able to apply unless their landlords agree to participate first.
"Not all of the money has been earmarked," Karni said, "so much so that in last week's press conference the mayor opened up the door so to speak, urging tenants to apply even if their landlord had not applied first, really recognizing the fact that ‘the most vulnerable' had no ability under the original parameters to have their need met."
Harris County housing recovery czar and state representative Armando Walle on Friday said he was also caught off guard by Turner’s announcement, but added that the county’s position remained the same.
“We respect the mayor’s decision but we want to continue the work of the task force,” Walle said.
If the county does continue without the city’s participation, some members said they're willing to keep serving.
"I think we can do some good work, some powerful work with the county," Middleton said. "I just think things could be a lot more powerful if we also had the city involved."
Jay Malone, a task force member and the political director for the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said he was surprised by Turner's announcement and couldn't speculate on the reasons behind it.
"I can say that we were all very disappointed by his decision to not move forward with the consensus recommendation for the grace period ordinance," Malone said, "just like we're disappointed by the decision to end the city of Houston's work through the task force."
Malone said advocates will continue to call on city council to help renters.
"We still have thousands of union members who are unemployed, and we think the grace period ordinance should still be considered by the city council and should be put on the agenda for a vote," Malone said.