AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County is looking at ways to improve assistance for people who are facing eviction as the last pandemic-created delays are set to expire at the beginning of March.

Eviction Lab, a nonprofit that looks at eviction rates across the country, published data last month that shows prior to the pandemic, roughly 200 evictions were being filed on a weekly basis in Austin. Those numbers have dropped dramatically as the federal government and county leaders put moratoriums in place.

Eviction filings in Travis County
Eviction filings in Travis County, TX (Austin) have fallen sharply since eviction proceedings were suspended across Texas on March 19, 2020 (courtesy Travis County and Eviction Lab)

When those protections and delays are altogether lifted, and federal rent help dries up, leaders anticipate there will be a large spike in eviction filings — something they’re trying to minimize.

“At the end of the day, every family that we keep from being evicted is a family that doesn’t go into our homeless numbers,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion said.

In Travis County commissioners court Tuesday, staff brought forward a roughly $1.6 million plan that would fund two years of expanding the county’s agreements with the Austin Tenants’ Council, Volunteer Legal Services and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.

A significant chunk of that money would go towards hiring experienced lawyers to help tenants navigate the eviction process. Additional funds would go towards education, helping tenants apply for help, and having additional people for eviction mediation.

The holdup — where that money actually comes from.

After much discussion, commissioners asked staff to come back next week with a side-by-side look at funding options including using money from the general fund, from the American Rescue Plan or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rental assistance

Paul Cauduro, the director of government relations at the Austin Apartment Association, thinks Travis County should focus its efforts on rental assistance, not legal aid, for people who are facing eviction.

“During this time of imposed delay, rental assistance is imperative,” Cauduro said. “We know rental assistance works.”

The portal for Travis County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which was funded by the federal government, has been closed. The county still owes residents roughly $2 million in rental assistance that has been approved but not paid through ERAP. Around $400,000 of that, which was overcommitted by the county, will come from the county’s budget.

Some of that money went to help people like Ryan Paulino, but he says the process was drawn out and he is still facing eviction come March.

“I still owe because all the time in waiting,” Paulino said. He had to go through the Travis County Auditor’s office to finally get money for rent after being approved for ERAP in August. “Now I’m trying to scrape money together to avoid homelessness when evictions resume March 1st.”

Travis County is hoping to help people like Paulino moving forward, but again, it comes down to funding.

Kirsten Siegfried, the director of the family support division of the health and human services department, laid out how expensive it would be to transition ERAP to a county-funded program.

At the rate the county said is most fair, and to support people from February through September, the county expects it will burn through the more than $4.5 million already set aside for rent and mortgage assistance and would need more than $4.6 million more.

Where that money will come from is also expected to be discussed in more detail at a future meeting.

Still, commissioners, and those working to figure out how the county will address what could be a tsunami of eviction cases, are hoping to find the money before it’s too late.

“Evictions are rarely about someone renting a place beyond their means, evictions usually happen because someone was one sickness or one pink slip away from losing their home,” Judge Nick Chu, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5.