Housing

Texas’ rental assistance program will soon run out of money

The statewide program doled out more than $1.2 billion to 212,344 households. There have been nearly 50,000 eviction filings in Houston since the beginning of the pandemic.

Housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes.

The Texas Rent Relief Program will shut down its application portal at 5 p.m. on Friday. Some local governments still have money for rent help, but those funds may soon run out, as well.

The program has spent most of the $1.9 billion it received from the federal government over the past year to help renters struggling during the pandemic pay their rent and utility bills and avoid evictions.

The program had approved more than $1.2 billion in funds to help more than 223,000 households so far, according to an update on Tuesday from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. But the program is on its way to run out of money soon.

"Due to the amount of applications currently being reviewed and the amount of funding left, TDHCA anticipates shutting down intake of applications by COB Friday," the update said.

A Wednesday press release announcing the Friday portal closure said the department has $680 million left to disburse.

"None of us saw this coming," said Stuart Campbell, a lawyer with the nonprofit Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. He said housing advocates like him were disappointed they weren't given more notice.

"Right now, as it stands, starting next Monday, there's a chance that people will start getting evicted at a much higher rate because they're not able to apply [for state help]," Campbell said.

Many of Texas' bigger cities and counties also received rental assistance funds from the Treasury. While some still have funds available, others have also run out. The Dallas housing authority — called DHA, Housing Solutions for North Texas — has exhausted its rental assistance funds, according to a notification on its website.

"If you live in the city of Dallas right now, your only option is to apply to DHA and hope they get more money, or go to one of the non-governmental organizations that may have some money, like the United Way or Catholic Charities," Campbell said. "Hopefully some of these churches [and nonprofits] can supply rental assistance where the governmental bodies have run out."

Despite a rocky start, the Texas Rent Relief Program has consistently outperformed other states in getting vital assistance to renters battered by the pandemic's economic devastation. Still, the program continues to face complaints about errors and the slow pace of application processing.

According to the TDHCA, first-time applicants are waiting 69 days, on average, to learn if their application has been approved. The program expedites applications for people whose landlords have filed an eviction case against them. That expedited process still takes 32 days.

"That requires a lot of buy-in from the landlord and property management community. Some would rather get a new tenant and a new application fee and a new first-month's rent and just take a loss on the old tenant, rather than wait for Texas Rent Relief," Campbell said.

While the program is slated to stop taking new applications, it could be more of a pause than a full stop.

There have been nearly 50,000 eviction filings in Houston since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the eviction tracker from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That’s the third most in the country.

Austin, which issued an eviction moratorium, is near the bottom of the list of large cities with just 1,903 filings.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has rejected the idea of a moratorium, and only issued a grace period for evictions in February of this year despite calls to do so since early 2020.

The grace period passed city council as a stop-gap measure to give renters time to apply for the city’s joint rent relief program with Harris County, which has so far distributed money to 62,761 families, according to the website.

The city’s grace period expired on March 31. But reporting from Houston Public Media found that while it was in effect landlords filed more than 2,000 evictions and judges heard thousands of cases, even though evictions were supposed to be on hold.

A moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control was also largely ineffective, stopping a small fraction of eviction proceedings in Houston. That moratorium was ultimately blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court in August.

The Biden administration announced plans in September to potentially claw back pandemic rent relief funds from state and local governments that have been slow to get the money to people in need. The administration would then send the money to places, like Texas, that have gotten funds out more efficiently but still have unmet need.

Another potential boon for struggling renters could come from the president's signature Build Back Better Act, which has been held up by fierce negotiations in Congress.

"TDHCA does plan to request additional re-allocated funds from the Treasury, but the federal agency has yet to announce when those funds will be released," the agency's update said.

The massive economic recovery plan (currently $1.75 trillion) would authorize $150 billion in federal funds to bolster affordable housing. About $25 billion of that would go out as new rental assistance, if the bill is passed.

"This would be the most significant single investment in quality, stable, affordable homes for the country's lowest-income people in history," said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a statement.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is still encouraging people to start an application before the portal closes on Friday afternoon. Applicants will then have 21 days to finish the application. The department can't guarantee funding, but it'll put applicants in line for whatever funds are still available.

Those who have already applied should expect to find out if they've been approved for funding within three months, according to the department.

Texans who need help paying for rent, utilities, or other basic needs can also go to its Help for Texans site, which connects individuals with local organizations who may still have funding to help.

Additional reporting from Houston Public Media’s Paul DeBenedetto.

KERA's One Crisis Away project is supported in part by grants from Communities Foundation of Texas and Texas Women's Foundation.

This story originally appeared on KERA News, and is made possible through the generosity of its members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA’s One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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