In April, the Houston City Council voted to approve receiving $404 million in federal funding to help residents with rental assistance. By July 30, nearly 40 percent of Houstonians couldn’t pay their rent and mortgages, according to numerous reports.
Approximately 631,000 Texas residents have received federal rental assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The unemployed received an additional $600 a week in federal assistance through July 31.
The state’s economic downturn caused by Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders to help slow the spread of COVID-19, coupled with historic oil and gas losses resulting from the Russian-Saudi oil war, led to more than 4.4 million jobless claims filed in the state since March 14.
To date, the state has paid $24.6 billion in unemployment benefits. It has made 1,828,255 payments in the last 10 days, the Texas Workforce Commission reports.
Texas ranked third highest among states whose residents have received federal rental assistance, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis.
Despite billions of dollars of federal funds pouring into the state, Houston is still struggling.
In May, Houston’s first $15 million in rental assistance ran out in 90 minutes, according to the Houston Chronicle.
By June, Harris County, where Houston is located, began eviction proceedings for nearly $29 million worth of unpaid rent.
Justices of the Peace enforce eviction proceedings in Harris County. According to local news reports, offices have been accepting eviction filings, processing them and granting the evictions. Harris Co. Pct. 1 Place 2 Judge David Patronella told ABC 13 News that he halted all evictions for non-payment through Aug. 7.
The CARES Act prohibited landlords or housing authorities from filing eviction actions, charging nonpayment fees or penalties or giving notice to vacate to individuals and families who lost their income due to state and local shutdown orders. The moratorium expired July 24 and only applied to federally subsidized or federally backed housing. A similar state moratorium ended May 25.
Because Democrats and Republicans in Congress haven’t reached a deal on another relief bill, which would have helped struggling tenants, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to help. They were tasked with identifying “any and all available federal funds” to provide temporary financial assistance to those experiencing financial hardships.
The order directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider whether an additional eviction ban is needed.
“The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of CDC shall consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 from one State or possession into any other State or possession,” the order states.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told MSNBC News that the order “offers nothing more than false hope to renters who are at risk of eviction because that executive order does literally nothing to prevent or stop evictions.”
After the statewide moratorium on evictions mandated by the Texas Supreme Court ended in late May, Lone Star Legal Aid received a 24 percent increase in applications filed with its office to help applicants with eviction proceedings.
“On top of a public health crisis, I’m afraid that we’re heading into a homelessness crisis in Houston,” Jon-Ross Trevino with Lone Star Legal Aid, told ABC News.
By July 25, after the federal moratorium ended, the law office received 1,358 applications for eviction help, a 36 percent increase from the previous year.
“The saddest thing is we’re in the middle of this health crisis, and we have landlords shutting off their utilities on their tenants, forcing them out into the public,” Trevino said. “The eviction is so fast, they can get their notice to vacate, and three weeks later the trial is done, and a constable is at their door.”
On July 30, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declined to support a city-mandated eviction grace period for tenants to catch up on past-due payments. One day later, his office announced a second round of $15 million in rental assistance.
Another $4 million raised through private donors has since been added to this total, including money allocated for legal assistance. Turner said the city will coordinate with Harris County to help as many people as possible.
On July 28, Harris County commissioners agreed to add $10 million to an existing rental assistance program, which now totals $25 million.
The advocacy organization Texas Housers has criticized the mayor, arguing stronger measures need to be taken to help people catch up on past due 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, said 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.”