Houston announces $15 million to assist tenants, but passes on mandatory eviction grace period for people behind on rent

Latino workers gathered for a car protest to demand economic, rental and health relief outside of Houston City Hall on Tuesday. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a new rent relief program, but opposed a mandatory eviction grace period. Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a second round of $15 million in rental assistance for people financially struggling during the COVID-19 recession Friday, one day after he declined to support a city-mandated grace period for tenants to catch up on past-due payments.

“Our objective is to help the most vulnerable,” Turner said at a press conference. “Our priority is to ensure quick assistance to help families avoid evictions, working alongside landlords willing to provide flexibility and compassion to keep the tenants housed.”

More than 3 million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. They have also relied on federal benefits from a congressional pandemic relief package, eviction moratoriums and rent assistance programs to remain housed. Demand for funds provided by local governments and nonprofits has been extremely high, though. And as some protective measures have expired and relief funds have dried up, many Texas renters face another deadline Saturday for paying rent.

In May, Houston's first $15 million in rent assistance ran out in 90 minutes, according to The Houston Chronicle. Turner said that this time, recipients won't be based on a "first come, first served" basis and that the city will work to identify those applicants that need the help the most.

San Antonio, a city with a smaller population than Houston, created a $50.3 million fund for renters, according to a spokesperson. The city has received more than 17,000 applications and expects the funding will last through September. Dallas’s $13.7 million rent assistance fund reached capacity within 30 hours of opening. Austin officials announced last week a second round of assistance, with $13 million in direct rental assistance, according to a spokesperson.

A statewide moratorium on evictions mandated by the Texas Supreme Court expired in May. And the national moratorium on federally-backed housing, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act ended last week. Meanwhile, most justices of peace in Harris County have resumed hearing eviction cases.

Houston housing advocates and Housing Stability Task Force members pushed for a grace period to let renters catch up, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Austin officials have a moratorium on evictions until September 30. Dallas County also still has a moratorium in place until next week. Dallas city officials also created a 60-day grace period to catch up on unpaid rent and late fees before they can be evicted, if they provide valid proof of COVID-19 related financial hardship, according to a city spokesperson.

Turner opposed creating such a grace period, Houston Public Radio reported. On Friday, he announced the Houston Apartment Association has voluntarily agreed to “work with tenants to provide a grace period for those who may have fewer options.”

City officials deferred requests for details about the program to the HAA. In a statement, the association explained that they are limited in what they can ask their members.

“HAA and Mayor Turner are asking Houston apartment owners to basically keep doing what they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic - waiving late fees and working with residents to keep them in their homes”, said HAA president Clay Hicks. “Because of federal anti-trust law, it’s not legal for us to suggest specific financial terms for owners to adopt. We are simply joining the mayor and asking everyone to continue doing their best.”

Houston’s fund will be complemented by another $4 million raised through private donors and it will include money for legal assistance for people going through eviction cases. Turner also said that the city will coordinate with Harris County to cover as many people as possible. On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners agreed to add $10 million to an existing rent assistance program, which now totals $25 million, according to the Chronicle.

In a statement, the advocacy organization Texas Housers asked for stronger measures to give people time to catch up with pending rent.

“Rental assistance will only reach so many people, a grace period could protect countless more,” said Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas co-director at Texas Housers, in a statement. “We remain disappointed that the best practice of a grace period ordinance, unanimously recommended by the Housing Stability Task Force, has still not been brought before the council. The mayor is convinced that he can simply encourage landlords to not evict people during a pandemic without passing policy, but corporate interests don’t magically hold themselves accountable.”

Advocates also asked that these funds are delivered directly to tenants, and not to landlords.

“Unless the grace period is city mandated, it’s going to be toothless," said Josephine Lee, organizer with El Pueblo Primero, a workers rights group. "The way things are going now, landlords are trying to squeeze all the rent they can from tenants. People are being forced to work in unhealthy conditions or forced to move in with others so that they can afford rent."

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