‘Very frustrating’: Renters who sought help from Bexar County describe disorganized process

Executive director of Housing Authority of Bexar County defends program, says agency had just weeks to get it going

Despite mounting criticism from staff members and people who applied for help with their rent, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Bexar County defended her agency’s handling of its COVID-19 rental assistance program.

SAN ANTONIO – Despite mounting criticism from staff members and people who applied for help with their rent, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Bexar County defended her agency’s handling of its COVID-19 rental assistance program.

County records provided to the KSAT 12 Defenders in recent weeks include complaints from applicants who said they had to repeatedly submit information already provided to the county, had difficulty reaching staff to check on the status of their application and left repeated messages and never heard back.

“It was a rushed program. We were wanting to get people help as soon as possible,” said HABC Executive Director Tammye Trevino, who added the framework for the labor-intensive program was put together in four to five weeks.

“A program of this magnitude, that’s going to have four million dollars, would easily take six months to stand up,” said Trevino.

The Temporary Rental Assistance Measure (TRAM) was introduced earlier this year and provides between one and six months of rental assistance to residents whose income has been negatively impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The program is available to residents of unincorporated Bexar County and 26 suburbs of San Antonio.

Residents of San Antonio are not eligible for the program.

Only 17% of applicants got assistance

As of Oct. 1, only 17% of applicants to TRAM, 642 households in all, had received any sort of rental assistance, according to records provided by Bexar County.

Trevino pointed out that more than half of all applicants were disqualified because they are not geographically eligible to receive help.

HABC Executive Director Tammye Trevino speaks with Dillon Collier. (KSAT)

Over 300 applicants were denied for other reasons, including not being able to show that their income has been hurt by the pandemic.

The county and HABC originally entered into a $2.6 million agreement in May to use general funds for the rental assistance program.

In June, the county entered into a community block grant agreement to cover another $1.4 million in funding for it.

County housing director overpaid for months before agency fixed issue

The program was revised last month, however, so that federal CARES Act funding would be utilized instead of general and block grant funds, county records show.

In all, $9.4 million could be utilized for the program if needed, according to county records.

The city’s emergency housing program, administered by its Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, has assisted 64% of all applicants since the start of the year, according to figures updated as of mid-October.

Its program, which saw a more than ten-fold increase in applications after the pandemic started, also provides help with mortgages and utilities.

“It’s very aggravating. It’s very frustrating.”

Jacob Yarbrough, a 31-year-old former Army National Guard member, applied for TRAM after he said he lost his information technology job this spring.

Despite being approved for the county program earlier this year, Yarbourgh is now facing eviction.

Yarbrough and a man representing the apartment complex where Yarbrough lives, both testified during a court hearing earlier this month that HABC made a $750 payment on Yarbrough’s behalf in August then quickly canceled it.

The Defenders were permitted to record video of the proceedings inside Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 but were not allowed to record audio.

Jacob Yarbrough appears in court earlier this month to fight a possible eviction. (KSAT)

The man, who testified virtually via telephone, confirmed that representatives of the complex moved forward with eviction proceedings against Yarbrough in late August after HABC did not issue a repayment.

Yarbrough’s eviction case was reset until Oct. 29.

“I know for sure I called them every day for the last three weeks trying to reach somebody,” said Yarbourgh after the hearing.

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“I would say it’s been more of a giant kind of unknown mess,” said Yarbrough, who compared his experience of trying to reach county staff to times he has had to reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It’s very aggravating. It’s very frustrating,” said Yarbrough.

A complaint from Yarbrough recorded by county staff reads, “I am being thrown out of my home. Please help me out? No one has called me back. This will be my 4th message this week. Call me.”

Trevino declined to discuss Yarbrough’s situation, citing privacy concerns.

She did, however, acknowledge a glitch in the program this summer caused it to pay ahead several months of assistance to about 100 people who qualified.

“Well we can’t do that. We have to have people re-certify every month that they’re still eligible,” said Trevino, who would not say if Yarbrough was among those 100 or so people impacted.

Trevino confirmed the payments paid ahead had to be withdrawn by the agency.

Multiple other complaints fielded by county staff from applicants noted that applications for TRAM could not be tracked down because that information was still with the San Antonio Hope Center.

The local nonprofit contracted with HABC for about a month and helped the agency gather information from would-be applicants, SA Hope Center CEO Megan Legacy confirmed via telephone earlier this month.

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Legacy, however, said the nonprofit was not involved in processing applications.

“What we were hoping for was to free up our time on the phones, so that we could process a little faster, so that we could call folks,” said Trevino, when asked about SA Hope Center’s role in the rental assistance program.

HABC staff say they have had difficulty finding applications from renters who provided information through the San Antonio Hope Center. (KSAT)

Trevino pushed back on claims from staff that information gathered by the SA Hope Center was difficult to track down and said it is fairly simple to look up applications that include information that was gathered by the non-profit.

“It’s probably something that they didn’t double check,” said Trevino, referring to her staff.

Another TRAM applicant complaint fielded by county staff reads, “You keep asking for stuff I have submitted already 4 times to the TRAM folder. Why do you need this info 4 times??? I put my name and confirmation number. Call me.”

Another applicant complaint reads, “This is my 3rd time leaving a message and no one has returned my calls. I am going to leave my apartment because I have no way of paying this place. I am being evicted and we must leave now because we were supposed to leave on the 9th of September. We have 60 days now to leave. I need a call back.”

County officials declined to make Judge Nelson Wolff available for an interview for this story.

An order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early September prevents landlords from evicting renters through the end of the year, as long as certain conditions are met.

The order was put in place to prevent an increase in the level of homelessness in the United States, which could help stem the further spread of the coronavirus.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.