‘It was just a mess’: Texas Rental Relief Program has distributed about 3% of its billion-dollar allotment

Vulnerable tenants and landlords covering unpaid rent aren’t getting the COVID relief they are eligible for

SAN ANTONIO – Over the past two months, Ron, a northwest San Antonio resident, said he applied three separate times to the Texas Rent Relief Program, a billion-dollar state effort funded by emergency federal aid that is meant to minimize evictions by providing financial assistance to renters and landlords.

Laid off during the pandemic, Ron said he’s gone through nearly all of his savings to pay his rent.

After calling a hotline for the program for more than a month with no response, he said he finally received an email last week that his application had been accepted. Though he is still waiting for payment, Ron said the email gave his landlord hope, and he likely would have been evicted if not for the “eleventh-hour” approval.

“It’s hard to look for a job when you don’t even know if you’re going to have a house,” he said in a phone interview, speaking on the condition that KSAT 12 would not publish his last name because he is concerned about future job prospects. “That’s why I was really pushing for the rental thing to come through because what was next was I was probably out.”

Still, he knows he’s one of the more fortunate.

The combination of unaware tenants and landlords, early issues of an antiquated, difficult-to-navigate website and the extensive documentation required — including a copy of the lease, past utility bills, proof of income reduction and proof of government benefits — made him think many of Texas’ most vulnerable renters never found or finished their Texas Rent Relief Program (TRRP) application.

“I stayed on top of it, but I know other people probably gave up,” he said. “It was just a mess.”

The state-run rent relief program has so far distributed 3.1% of their $1.17 billion budget to about 5,000 households, according to an analysis of records obtained by KSAT.

The program — coupled with the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium, in place until June 30 — was implemented to keep at-risk tenants in their homes and reimburse landlords for lost income during the pandemic.

However, with parts of the Texas judicial system now allowing eviction proceedings and the TRRP crawling its way out of an administrative backlog, advocates say thousands of renters are falling through the cracks.

“We are concerned about the rocky start and we weren’t happy with it,” said state Rep. Philip Cortez, who chairs the Urban Affairs Committee. “Unfortunately, those delays caused a lot of pain, headaches and heartaches in terms of people just trying to keep a roof over their heads for themselves and their families.”

A Slow Start

The TRRP has given out $36.7 million of its $1.17 billion budget, or about 3.1%, as of April 23, according to an analysis of records obtained by KSAT.

The money went to 5,100 households, representing 5% of the 102,000 submitted applications. According to TDHCA, almost 40,000 applications are in some stage of review, either waiting for missing documentation or in a final review before payment is approved.

. (Jason Harward/KSAT)

Most of the applicants are poor — below 80% of their area’s median income — and have been unemployed for at least 90 days prior to submitting an application. Like Ron, the renter in San Antonio, many of those submitting applications are on the verge of eviction and homelessness.

“There are tens of thousands of people who applied to the program and have been sitting in silence for over a month,” said Eli Barrish, part of the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Housers’ COVID Task Force. “Who are they supposed to turn to when they’ve applied to the program they’re supposed to apply to, and they’re evicted anyway?”

The relief program, run by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and funded by part of the $25 billion in the CARES Act earmarked for state and local rental relief programs across the country, experienced staffing shortages and serious online issues, such as allowing applicants to submit incomplete or incorrect documentation, from its opening in mid-February until near the end of March.

TDHCA Director Bobby Wilkinson told KSAT 12 in an interview on April 16 that these issues had been largely addressed.

“We have an aggressive ramp-up and we’re getting great results. I think we’ve tripled from a week ago, and we’re north of a million [dollars in disbursement] a day right now,” Wilkinson said. “I think it’s at 1.2 or 1.3 [million dollars per day] and climbing. I expect to be at multiple millions per day pretty soon.”

Since widely reported March 31 numbers that showed Texas had only given out money to 250 families statewide, TDHCA increased staffing to about 1,300 people and is averaging around $2 million per day. During the week of April 19, TDHCA said they approved funds for more than 2,500 households.

A recent New York Times article described nationwide failures in state rental relief programs, noting the difficulty in quickly creating a system that can verify and disburse billions of federal dollars. One national report showed rental relief programs often fall short in outreach to those who need it most, a reality exacerbated by the pandemic. Poorer residents and renters often don’t have broadband access at home, for example.

According to San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA) Executive Director Sarah Dingivan, some of the state’s most endangered residents have found it difficult to provide the many different documents required. Dingivan added that even alerting these residents to the program so that they can apply has been hampered by the pandemic.

“With the pandemic limiting in-person interactions, it’s just been difficult to spread the word around low-income communities about this program and help them collect the necessary documentation to fill it out correctly,” Dingivan said.

Evictions Continue in Texas Despite Federal Halt

The CDC’s eviction moratorium began last September, classifying evictions as detrimental to public health because, as the CDC puts it, “homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters.” The current iteration of the moratorium expires after June 30.

The federal order allows those covered by the moratorium — people with medium and lower incomes who have experienced a loss of income due to the pandemic, among other requirements — to complete and present a declaration to their landlord, which should protect them from eviction. Landlords who carry out evictions anyway could be subject to federal penalties, the order states.

On Jan. 31, the Texas Supreme Court issued Emergency Order 34, which forced landlords to include a copy of the CDC declaration with any eviction order, and instructed courts within the state not to proceed with an eviction unless it was determined that the tenant was not covered by the moratorium. However, these guidelines expired at the end of March, and no replacement has yet been signed.

According to Texas Housers, which works with low-income families and advocates for affordable housing across the state, some landlords have grown impatient with delays in the TRRP and are beginning the eviction process.

“The rent relief program has been so dysfunctional that, from a landlord’s perspective, now that they have the option to evict and get their property back, they may prefer that to waiting for these programs to start to work,” Barrish said. “And, the state rental assistance program will only work if it’s given time to succeed, so the state is really hamstringing its own program by not enforcing the CDC moratorium.”

Wilkinson says that TDHCA is telling landlords to be patient and not evict tenants waiting for rent relief. And, while Cortez and other legislators echoed the call for landlords not to evict, the Texas judicial system is not requiring courts to uphold that promise.

That legal power resides partly with the Texas Justice Court Training Center (TJCTC), which educates Justices of the Peace (JPs), elected county officials who oversee eviction hearings, particularly in non-urban counties. The TJCTC offers a wide range of legal interpretations, allowing JPs to consider the CDC moratorium but not forbidding courts from moving forward with an eviction case.

“[Texas] is saying that tenants are essentially on their own, and they have no state resources to enforce the CDC moratorium,” Barrish said. “So it’s absolutely a case of the disparities that pre-exist the pandemic are really now intensifying and coming more into the light.”

Barrish said that renters already overwhelmed by the pandemic are at a disadvantage in eviction proceedings. Less than one in 10 tenants, many of whom are not familiar with their rights, have access to legal representation, compared to more than nine in 10 landlords who have counsel. Further, tenants may not have the technology to attend virtual hearings, and many face a barrier in understanding legal jargon.

In San Antonio, Bexar County courts are using their discretion to enforce the federal eviction moratorium. However, Bexar is an outlier among Texas counties in terms of clear legal standards for eviction proceedings, advocates say.

“The district that you live in, or that you rent your home in, that can have a huge impact on whether you stay in your home or you’re evicted,” Barrish said. “That should be a deeply concerning situation for everybody in Texas.”

The Path Forward

According to TDHCA, the American Rescue Plan Act, which approved another $21 billion in March for state and local rent relief programs nationwide, will inject around $1 billion into the TRRP, though the timeline of when those funds will arrive is unclear.

Wilkinson will testify in front of the Urban Affairs Committee on Wednesday about the progress of the rent relief program. Cortez, who chairs the committee, said he’ll be expecting clear benchmarks for the program’s success in the month of April and beyond.

“To me, it’s unacceptable if any Texas family is losing the roof over their head during this pandemic, during this distressed time in our nation’s history,” Cortez said. “It’s our job to continue to press on this rent relief program as it is a critical resource for Texas families, and the money’s available.”

Moving forward, the June 30 expiration of the federal eviction moratorium looms over the rental relief program, though that date could be extended. Unless the rent relief program can meet all of the needs, SALSA Housing Fellow Ricardo Gonzalez said there could be a spike in evictions.

“When the moratorium lifts, all of the back rent will come due. Even if it gets extended, it kind of just kicks the can down the road,” Gonzalez said. “The [court] docket will probably be full, and the things that follow homelessness aren’t good.”

To check the status of an application for Rent Relief, or to fill out an application without Internet access, call (833) 989-7368.

Visit texasrentrelief.com to fill out an application online.

For free legal assistance with the eviction process visit https://stoptxeviction.org

Are you or someone you know facing eviction or waiting for rent relief? Send me an email at jharward@ksat.com.