AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jason Belk was in a bind. He’d lost his job at the beginning of 2020, weeks before the pandemic began. As lockdowns led to an economic downturn, weeks of fruitless job searching turned into months with no income.

Belk and his family burned through $40,000 in savings and dipped into their 401K retirement account to stay housed and financially afloat in Leander. It still wasn’t enough. In March, he turned to Texas Rent Relief — a federally-funded state program run by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs that provides rental and utility bill assistance.

It was a rocky and frustrating experience, said Belk, who came close to eviction before finally getting help and a check for more than $19,000.

Belk said he struggled through an “amazingly painful” online application and approval process that took months. His application was initially denied, and he had to file an appeal. It wasn’t until after KXAN began asking the Department of Housing and Community Affairs questions about Belk’s case that the agency gave him final approval and cut him a check.

Belk’s experience is not unique, according to Department of Housing and Community Affairs complaint records obtained by KXAN. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Texans have struggled to get payments.

The Rent Relief Program launched in mid-February and quickly learned its software was inadequate and difficult to use. The agency swapped software a month later. Most original applicants then resubmitted their applications in the new system, creating duplicate applications that have been an “ongoing challenge,” according to Department of Housing and Community Affairs Senior Communications Advisor Kristina Tirloni.

Jason Belk and his family pictured here. They spent months waiting on rental assistance through the statewide program, after he lost his job and they struggled to pay their bills. (Photo provided by: Belk family)
Jason Belk and his family spent months waiting on rental assistance through the statewide program, after he lost his job and they struggled to pay their bills. (Photo provided by: Belk family)

Each month since March, the department has received a steadily increasing number of complaints about the rent relief program. Most of the complaints focus on application and money disbursement delays.

One July complainant said they were “approved for rent relief for months no payment.” Another complaint received that month said the applicant was “unable to get answers or assistance.”

“No response to my application submitted March 13,” said another complaint submitted July 30.

Responses to complaints show department workers trying to escalate dire issues and explain the problems with the application system and customer service.

“First, we apologize for the long wait times and unresponsiveness. We are working with the call center to improve and continue to hire more staff to meet the need,” one worker responded in June.

Despite the rough start and escalating complaints, at a national level Texas’ rent relief program is outperforming nearly every other state, according to federal records. According to an August New York Times report, Texas has been one of the more effective successful states in getting money out to stressed renters.

“Per recent U.S. Treasury reports, Texas is currently leading the nation among state rent relief programs in dollars spent and is number two in the nation for percentage of award spent,” according to Tirloni, who also said Texas was one of the first states in the country to begin accepting applications.

Tirloni said the Department of Housing and Community Affairs is proud of the program’s success. On Sept. 22, TDHCA had disbursed $800.5 million in rental and utility assistance to 136,131 households. One day later, on Sept. 23, the total disbursed rose more than $10 million and 438 additional houses. The program received $1.17 billion overall to spend, leaving roughly 31% of available funds unspent, according to the Texas Rent Relief data dashboard.

“The demand for our program is strong and we are continuously working to streamline our operations and processing times to serve more applicants in a shorter time,” Tirloni said in an email. “Having said that, TDHCA and Texas Rent Relief staff realize the work isn’t done. … Many Texans still need our help. We’re committed to getting assistance out the door and into their hands by daily working on program improvements.”

Also, as of Sept. 23, there are more than 17,933 households approved for assistance but their payments —totaling over $92.5 million — are still “in progress,” according to the website.

‘Notice to move out’

Mary Jo Schoppa appears to be one of those people approved for a check but still waiting.

While applicants like Belk have waited for the program to help with their own rent, Schoppa said she’s watched the application process play out from the opposite angle.

Schoppa, a real estate agent, manages three commercial properties and 12 residences. She collects rent checks, and she’s been waiting months for one tenant’s checks to be paid through the rent relief program.

Schoppa said the tenant’s rent assistance application was approved by the program in late June. The money was supposed to be disbursed, yet nothing has come.

Real estate agent and property manager Mary Jo Schoppa speaks outside at a park bench with KXAN about her struggles with the Texas Rent Relief Program
Mary Jo Schoppa, a Georgetown real estate agent and property manager, said one of her tenant’s has struggled to receive payment from the Texas Rent Relief Program and could face eviction. (KXAN photo)

There’s one phone number to call, and “you can’t get through,” Schoppa said. “You could stay on hold for a few hours, if you had the time.”

Tirloni said the Department of Housing and Community Affairs would not comment on individual cases. Processing times have varied with the shifting volume of applications, federal requirements and the program’s capacity, she said.

The average time for an applicant to receive payment is about 62 days, Tirloni said in an email on Sept. 17. In most cases, payments are issued within two weeks of an approval notification.

While Schoppa waits for a $5,740 check, the property’s owner in California isn’t receiving rent that’s due. Schoppa has worked with the tenant, but the situation may result in an eviction if the money doesn’t come through.

“I’m going to have to give her notice to move out, if I can’t get any rent,” Schoppa said. “If she can’t pay, and the state won’t pay for her, I can’t continue to have her as a tenant.”

Tirloni said applications are reviewed in the order they arrive. However, applicants receive priority if they are experiencing an eviction and have a court docket number, or if there’s been a utility disconnection. Eviction diversion and utility disconnection cases are processed in 32 days, on average, she said.

To get help with your application, the program recommends applicants call 1-833-989-7368.

Eviction moratorium

A nationwide halt on evictions ended Aug. 26, after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium was found to be illegal without congressional approval, according to Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Fuchs said it seems unlikely Congress would approve a moratorium, but in Texas the State Supreme Court recently renewed its order on the Eviction Diversion Program through December 1. That order “provides that the courts must discuss the Eviction Diversion Program with tenants in nonpayment of rent cases and inquire whether the landlord wants to participate. If so, the eviction must be abated for 60 days,”

With the end to the CDC’s national eviction moratorium, the “bottom line” is that renters need to get these assistance checks faster, said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin.

Linares-Moeller said Austin’s rental assistance program has largely been a success, helping more than 6,200 households this year. Other programs have struggled, she said.

“They got such a large amount of money quickly, and then they were supposed to put it all back out again, and they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to do that,” Linares-Moeller said.

“Think about all of those complications in terms of the amount of information that the federal government was requesting, and then the timeliness of how fast you had to give it to them,” she said. “And then their processing time to get the money back out to you and or to your apartment complex manager.”