El difícil camino para acceder a los fondos de asistencia para el alquiler

Josh Short moves a box of belongings into their new mobile home while Peyton Sidex and Amanda Garrison unpack the family car in Del Leon, on March 25, 2021.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

In partnership with The National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, The Texas Tribune is producing a limited series of Spanish podcast episodes focused on providing accurate information about the pandemic.

Texas ha recibido miles de millones de dólares del gobierno federal para ayudar a los residentes sin trabajo a pagar el alquiler o la hipoteca. Sin embargo, la asistencia es de todo menos fácil de acceder, especialmente si eres indocumentado.

El objetivo final de la asistencia para el alquiler es ayudar a las personas a evitar el desalojo y los riesgos para la salud que conlleva vivir en las calles durante una pandemia.

Escuche el tercer episodio de esta serie de podcasts.


Versión en español del episodio

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English translation

María Isabel Gonzales: Texas has received billions of dollars from the federal government to provide out-of-work residents help with paying the rent or mortgage. The ultimate goal is to avoid eviction and the health risks that come with living on the streets during a pandemic. The assistance, though, is anything but easy to access – especially if you’re undocumented.

This episode focuses on one of people's biggest concerns during the pandemic: evictions.

Job losses and lower incomes have left thousands unable to pay their rent. And while experts predict that economic recovery is near, the fact is that nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in Texas from March 2020 to March this year, according to federal data.

The federal government allocated rental assistance funds to cities and counties with more than 200,000 residents. To this end, Texas received around $2 billion in January 2021, and will receive around $1.1 billion in additional funds to continue to meet this need. Part of that money was given to 40 cities and counties and the rest was set aside for a state fund with the same goal: to assist Texans with rent.

To deliver the money, each county and city has looked to different organizations that have access to the people who need this help and have experience in reviewing applications, such as Catholic Charities and BakerRipley. To apply for the funds, you have to fill out an online application and attach some documents. The process is usually faster when the landlord agrees to participate in the program. And while it may sound simple, the reality is more complicated.

In this episode, we will hear what happened in the cases of Marisol and María, two Mexican women who have requested this type of help to cover their rent. We are not using their full names because they are both undocumented immigrants.

Marisol: My name is Marisol. I live here in Houston, Texas, and as a stay-at-home mom, I work for my children. That is what I do. I work as a cook. I'm a cook.

Gonzales: Marisol applied for rent assistance funds in February. Even though she was told her case was proceeding, the money has yet to arrive.

Marisol: I have spoken with the county. What they told me is that the funds have already been sent, that they have already been paid out. But they have not arrived. The landlord hasn’t received them. I’ve called several times. The last time I spoke with the county was 15 days ago. They told me that they were going to put my case in priority status because I had applied in February. They were going to put my case in priority, and someone was going to contact me.

I told them, "The truth is that whenever I call, you tell me the same thing and nobody ever calls me." I'm still waiting for that call. They haven’t called to tell me this or that is happening. They just say we know that the rent has already been paid. But, no. Like the person at the rental office said, "Where is the money?"

Gonzales: Marisol is Mexican. She is 41-years-old and a single mother. She lives with her two children. She arrived in Houston 22 years ago, but she still has no documents. For her, as for thousands of undocumented people in the United States, things are a bit more complicated.

Marisol: The county asked for pay stubs, something that I didn't have because when I worked as a housekeeper they paid me cash. So, I didn’t have any to give them. And then when they asked me for the contract of the house that I rent, the rental office did not want to give it to me. They told me that the owner of the property said that he would not be accepting that type of help.

Gonzales: The process to access aid is easier when the property owner agrees to participate in the programs. Then, once the case is qualified as approved, the money goes directly to the property owner. Otherwise, the money can go to the tenant. But if you are undocumented, like Marisol, even if you have been approved, you will not be able to receive the money unless you have someone in your household with a social security number. But these are not the only complications when trying to access these funds.

María: My name is María. I live in Dallas, Texas. I am a member of the San Juan Diego parish and a volunteer in my children's schools. It is clear to me that we have to have an account, that we have to have an email. There are steps. There are rules. I understand that perfectly. But not all people can do that. We don't all have a computer. We don't all have a smartphone. Not all of us can create an email account. Not all of us know what a password is. And there are other things that we do not know about. It becomes very difficult for us.

My testimony is for people who, like me, are still living many difficult situations right now. The pandemic is not over because of the new strain or the new virus or whatever it is called. We are still in fear. We still do not want to go out because we are in the same situation, in the unknown. What is going to happen? Is everything going to close again? Are we going to stop working again? What will happen?

Gonzales: María lives with her husband and two children. In this case, both adults cover the household expenses. But even with both incomes, the money is not enough. That's why she asked for help twice last year. The first time they told her that the funds had run out. The second time she was able to receive rent assistance for three months. However, their situation is still unstable. She works cleaning houses for the elderly. But after getting COVID everything is more difficult.

María: I’ve suffered lasting effects from COVID. And before I got COVID I had pneumonia. So I was sick practically the whole year. I still get really tired. They are still doing X-rays of my lungs and my back. I am waiting for an appointment with a gastroenterologist because I’m vomiting a lot. I'm trying to go to work. I've already started going to work for two days, but I'm super, super tired. As I said, we live from day-to-day. We ran out of our savings with everything that happened last year.

Gonzales: To access rental assistance, you must complete some steps and fill out an online application. For example, in Harris County they state that:

  • If the landlord has signed up for the help program, the tenant can search the database and select them.
  • Otherwise, if the owner decides not to participate, the tenant can still submit a request.
  • Tenants must provide information on the amount of rent owed, proof of the financial impact COVID-19 has had on their lives, and evidence of housing instability, such as overdue bills or an eviction notice.
  • Once the application is approved, the landlord will be asked to confirm the amount of rent owed and to accept possible payments for future months.
  • After confirmation, the tenant and the landlord will receive a "confirmed commitment" email indicating the amount of rental assistance they will receive.
  • The program administrators will pay the "confirmed commitment" directly to the landlord’s bank account.
  • But it doesn’t always work out. Although there are successful cases, there are many others that remain unresolved. In fact, many Latino families self-evict when they receive threats from landlords or when eviction notices arrive. In Harris County alone there have been more than 56,000 evictions since January 2020. Other people keep trying to go through the process, but they are afraid like Marisol.

    Marisol: They [property managers] put letters on the door saying that they were going to take me to court. So I spoke to the county and said, “You know, I need to know if you are going to help me with the rent because they are already putting the letters on my door. And the truth is I have to go to work, and when I return I am afraid that the lock will be there. What am I going to do?”

    Gonzales: Many times, not being able to access this aid on time causes people to go into even more debt because the landlords begin to charge fees for not paying on time. María tells us that in order to apply for assistance, she had to deliver a letter from the property owner as proof that she owed rent.

    María: The organization asks us to provide a letter that states that we are late in paying the rent. I called the rental office. They were closed. They did not answer the phone. When they finally answered me, they told me I had to wait five days. I would be considered late on my rent, and I would be charged $75 just for the letter. I had to pay $75. And if I didn't pay rent within the time, they would charge me an additional $10 per day after that.

    The organization does send the payment, but it sends it a month after it is due. That is not acceptable to the rental office. Those at the rental office don't care that you already have an organization that is working with you and supporting you. If you are late paying rent the office notifies you that you have to pay a $75 fee for the letter plus $10 per day for each day you do not pay after you receive the letter.

    So if it takes a month or two months, you're going to be paying all of those costs. Also, the organization only helps you pay the rent. It does not help you pay the bills for electricity, water, and sewer. None of that, no.

    Gonzales: According to the Texas IAF organization, the eviction process steps are as follows:

  • Leases should give the tenant a grace period of around three days to pay rent before it is considered late.
  • The landlord can then give the tenant a “Notice to Evict” that says they must pay the rent within a certain number of days.
  • If the tenant does not pay within the established number of days, the landlord can file an eviction case with the justice of the peace court in the county where the property is located.
  • Then the court will take a few weeks to tell the tenant that they could be removed from their apartment or rental house and must appear in court for a judgment on the landlord's complaint.
  • If the court determines that the tenant must leave, some agents will go to the house and force the tenant to leave.
  • In most eviction cases, tenants do not have legal representation. Fewer than 4% of tenants facing eviction in Harris County had an attorney representing them in court. A group of non-profit organizations, including Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in South Texas and Lone Star Legal Aid in the Houston area, have tried to provide legal assistance to tenants struggling with eviction cases. In Houston and San Antonio, local governments pay attorneys to represent tenants before a justice of the peace. There are efforts to expand that type of legal assistance throughout the state.

    But as you’ve heard in Marisol and Maria’s cases, the processes can be complex, so not all states are succeeding in delivering the funds. For Marisol, it was good news to know that they agreed to help her. But she believes that it needs to move faster.

    Marisol: I think that yes, it is a program that helps you. But you also have to be on top of it because like I said, I have been calling, calling and calling for months and I still don’t have an answer. If only they could communicate more. If something is missing from your application and it is delaying the assistance, they should let you know. That’s why they have all our information. There are so many ways of contacting people nowadays. They don’t always have to call you or they can send you an email and let you know why you haven’t received the assistance. In my case, they’ve always told me the same thing.

    Gonzales: Another problem causing more people to struggle to pay their rent is the shortage of affordable and available housing throughout Texas for extremely low-income households. The rents have increased. According to the latest figures from Realtor.com, in cities like Dallas, the rent increase as of June 2021 was 13.1% versus the previous year. Although it's unclear how many evictions will take place in Texas, from late June to early July more than 600,000 households were behind on rent, according to a survey from the Census Bureau.

    In light of that, people who need the help have a message for the authorities.

    María: First, that they be a little more humane. That they think a little more about others. That they make it more manageable and better facilitate access to the support. And I would tell them to go see the places, the people and realize that the support is really needed. But as I’ve said before, the majority of people are afraid. We’re afraid.

    We are afraid because we are undocumented. We do not have a way to verify how we are here [in this country].

    Gonzales: In summary, we can report that there are assistance programs to help people who cannot pay their rent, either through cities or counties, or through the programs of the state of Texas. As of July 26, more than 95,000 households had received assistance from the Texas Rent Relief Program, and nearly $600 million have been paid toward this goal. But the barriers for those who most need this money remain high.

    According to organizations such as IAF, it is difficult for people to have the cooperation of the owners of the homes they rent, since they generally threaten the tenants or mistreat them for not being able to pay. Their recommendation is to provide easy-to-use and accessible websites and have community organizations with experience in online selection processes to assist applicants for the programs.