Rent relief programs ramp up as Travis County eviction order takes effect

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Certain eviction protections are coming to an end, while people across Travis County are still waiting on rental assistance funding.

As of June 1, landlords in Austin/Travis County can resume filing eviction notices for tenants who have five or more months of unpaid rent, after they have “exhausted all rental assistance.” This means all applications for state or county rental assistance have been denied or are still pending after 45 days.

Meanwhile, the nationwide eviction moratorium has been extended according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only through June 30.

“So it’s really important that — before an eviction moves forward — those tenants are connected to rental assistance resources, if they are available,” said Shoshana Krieger, Project Director of BASTA. “Some of the programs historically have been hard to navigate, hard to access. There are folks who have been on waiting lists for a very long time.”

BASTA is a non-profit dedicated to helping Austin renters work with their neighbors to improve conditions in their homes and communities. Krieger said they were watching to see how the latest eviction order affects local renters.

“The idea behind it is that the veil will be slowly opened so there is not a massive wave [of evictions] as the pandemic wanes,” she explained. “If the order works, and these tenants are prioritized for rental assistance — meaning they are able to get the rental assistance, and they are able to stay in their homes — then, we can continue as Travis County to have the lowest rate of evictions and have the lowest rate of housing destabilization in the entire state.”

A spokesperson for Travis County noted they had received more than 4,600 applications for their Travis County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 1,280 of those were submitted on or after April 19, when they reopened the program.

So far, the spokesperson said none of the money had been paid out.

  • To see what types of assistance you qualify for by location, click here.

At the state level, the Texas Rent Relief program aims to help renters cover up to 12 months of past-due bills and up to three months of future rent and utilities. Landlords can also apply on behalf of renters who are behind.

The program, comprised of $1.3 billion in federal relief funding, got off to a slow start with thousands of Texans waiting for approval. Now, a spokesperson for the program said more than 80% of all submitted applications were either in review, pending payment or had been paid. Plus, they were approving $10 million per day, on average.

That’s increased from an average of $3.5 million per day, reported by KXAN at the end of April.

At the time, the director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) said they were prioritizing people who were “close to getting evicted.”

As of June 1, program data reveals $139,718,580 has been paid out, but a spokesperson for TDHCA said if you combined that with the dollars “in the process of being paid” the total was closer to $220 million.

Just over $7 million of that total has gone to more than 1,000 households and recipients in Travis County.

TDHCA officials said they have been prioritizing the applicants who are at risk of eviction.

Data from two weeks ago revealed more than 5,000 applicants who had been approved were facing eviction. In a mid-May press release, TDHCA Executive Director Bobby Wilkinson said that comprised almost half of the funds distributed so far.

Samaj Nelson first spoke with KXAN’s Wes Rapaport last month. She had applied for the program soon after it launched, and that’s when the waiting game began.

“It was processing for so long, my anxiety was getting high,” she remembers. “Another thousand dollars, another thousand dollars. I’m just like… I don’t know how I am going to pay all of this.”

She had lost the job she’d held for nearly five years, due to the pandemic.

“Very chaotic. Very depressing,” Nelson said.

  • For detailed data on the Texas Rent Relief Program distribution, click here.

After her interview with KXAN, she said she got a call from the program director. Soon after that, her rent dating back to October was covered.

“I was about to cry,” she said. “I felt a huge weight evaporate, just gone. I was so relieved.”

She noted that she stayed in close contact with her landlord through the entire process, working with them to avoid a bad situation. Her message for other Austinites? Be communicative and patient.

“Apply, apply, apply, apply. It’s going to take time,” she said. “Especially with how much [money] they have left, everything is going to be fine.”

Barriers to approval

Krieger said digital literacy and language barriers were some of the most common problems she saw slowing down the application process of most rental assistance programs.

She called it a “disconnect in the speed of bureaucracy and the speed of the pandemic on the ground,” but noted that she had seen many of these barriers get worked out over the last few weeks and months.

“We are most concerned about tenants who are paycheck to paycheck, and who aren’t even able to make it right now,” she said.

A spokesperson for TDHCA said once the program begins to process an application, the “most significant” delay is receiving all the necessary documentation necessary.

They encourage applicants to ensure all email and phone contact information is correct, along with checking spam email folders and voice messages for communication from their staff during the approval process.

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