Montgomery County commissioners voted to return $7 million in unspent rent relief to the federal government on Tuesday — nearly one-third of the county’s allocation under a rental assistance program set up to stave off evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county’s rationale has been that residents have instead been applying to the state rent relief program: In a statement, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said that he believes there hasn't been much need for the federally allocated county funds.
But that wasn’t Ebanisha Wiley’s experience.
On Wednesday, Wiley was evicted in a Montgomery County courtroom, the morning after commissioners voted to send back the money.
"I need it," Wiley said. "I am desperately in need for help. I don't have any parents, grandparents, any immediate family I can turn to. It's just me and my kids. It's a struggle that wouldn't nobody understand unless they were in my shoes."
Wiley, a single mom with five kids, applied for the state rent relief program two months ago and she's still waiting for the check, which is now too late to help.
She said she couldn't find a rent relief program in Montgomery County.
“It's Thanksgiving next week," Wiley said. "I guess we're going to spend Thanksgiving moving out.”
Jay Malone, political director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, isn't surprised Wiley couldn’t find a Montgomery County program.
For more than a year, Malone has partnered with nonprofits and local government officials to host rent relief sign-up events across Greater Houston where people facing eviction can get help in person.
"We didn't reach out to Montgomery County because there was no evidence that there was an active program," Malone said. "There was no platform to apply, and so our understanding was that there wasn't a program that was active."
The federal government is working on a national effort to reallocate unspent rent relief, taking it from communities like Montgomery County that haven't spent the money and redistributing it to others that have.
The goal of the national reallocation plan is to send more resources to high-performing programs that need it and to make sure money doesn't go "unused by programs unwilling or unable to assist struggling renters and landlords," according to guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which runs the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program created in January to assist households struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic.
Montgomery County has distributed less than 2% of its rent relief allocation, according to federal data.
Wiley wasn’t the only one facing eviction on Wednesday. In fact, of the 10 eviction cases on the docket, at least half involved renters who said they had applied for state rent relief and not yet received it.
Malone argued that county officials should have done more to distribute their own funds.
"All of our leaders have a responsibility to do everything they can to keep people housed as we continue to deal with this public health crisis," Malone said.
More than 3,300 eviction cases have been filed in Montgomery County since March 2020, according to the data firm January Advisors.
The state rent relief program has handed out $20 million to Montgomery County residents, but the statewide program closed to new applicants earlier this month because it was out of money.
Montgomery County still has $10 million in rent relief funding it’s planning to distribute to residents through next year, according to a statement from Keough, the county judge.
"With millions in assistance still available this week's decision to send back funds is not an indication that we have stopped assistance but demonstrates that the amount needed at this time has slowed down and we have no reason to sit on these funds when other counties, or states across the country may need them more than our residents,” Keough said.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County launched an online portal where residents can apply for rent relief. Applicants will be contacted by one of four nonprofit organizations distributing the funds on behalf of the county, according to Rebecca Ansley, the county's community development director.
In February, former community development director Joanne Ducharme asked county commissioners to hire five temporary employees to help the department distribute the rent relief funding, but the commissioners declined the request, the Conroe Courier reported.
Eviction filings have increased steadily in the region since a national eviction moratorium ended in August, with numbers in Houston now approaching pre-pandemic levels.
As of Thursday, 90% of a joint $283.4 million joint rent relief program from Houston and Harris County had been either distributed to households or approved for distribution, according to a spokesperson with the program.
On Wednesday, the Harris County Eviction Defense Coalition sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury asking that the department send reallocated rent relief funding to Harris County.
"Failure to replenish the (Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program) would exacerbate the housing instability crisis that our organizations have been working tirelessly to avert," members of the coalition wrote in the letter.