Houston-Harris County rent relief gets a lifeline with $13 million in additional funding – Houston Chronicle

A program to help Houston and Harris County renters impacted by the pandemic is slated for an infusion of federal funds that could keep rental assistance open for months longer than projected. The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced Friday its plans to reallocate Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds from local governments that have been slow to disburse rent relief to those that have distributed theirs more quickly.

Montgomery County was among those that returned funding to the federal government — $7.1 million. Houston and Harris County, among the fastest in the nation to establish rent relief programs and distribute funds, was among those receiving additional funding — $14.5 million, roughly $13 million of which will be available for renters after administrative costs are taken into account.

The size of the infusion is a small fraction of the $283 million in funding the Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program had previously received and largely distributed over the course of 2021 but could grow if the Treasury continues reallocating funds. It had distributed all but $4 million as of Thursday.

Mayor Sylvester Turner applauded the decision.

“Our priority will remain to get those dollars out, and the goal is to keep families in their homes during the pandemic and beyond,” he said in an emailed statement. He added that Houston and Harris County’s joint effort, in partnership with BakerRipley and Catholic Charities “has served as an example for cities and counties around the country.”

While before, landlords could receive funds as soon as tenants fell behind, the dwindling money is now being used to help tenants at the greatest risk of losing their homes. The program has been able to distribute between $1 million and $2 million a month to landlords who have already filed for evictions, meaning the funds would be depleted around the end of February if not for the additional infusion.

Some tenants and landlords who had already submitted rent relief applications but are not yet in eviction court will continue to be processed, as landlords who received too much funding make refunds to the program, according to the Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program spokesperson. But it is unclear whether the $13 million will allow the program to start processing that subset of applications in earnest.

“We are currently determining the best approach for the reallocated funds, but expect to prioritize in active eviction proceedings,” said Melissa Arredondo, press secretary for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, in an email.

While four states received additional funding, Texas did not, meaning that many Texans continue to be cut off from Emergency Rental Assistance funds. While many local governments are helping distribute federal relief funds to local renters, in some parts of the state, Texas Rent Relief was the only avenue to such funds, and it depleted that funding in 2021. Only 23 of the state’s 254 counties and 14 of its cities had their own Emergency Rental Assistance program funds, according to a Treasury Department report. Residents in the rest of the state depended on Texas Rent Relief, which the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said had reached 95 percent of Texas counties as of Oct. 14.

In Houston and Harris County, many are asking what will happen once the money runs out.

Arredondo pointed to other rent assistance programs that existed before the pandemic and that will continue after the influx of federal rent relief, albeit with much more limited funding. “Tenants can call 211 for referrals to any available programs in their area,” she said.

And Dana Karni, managing attorney for the Eviction Right to Counsel Project at the nonprofit Lone Star Legal Aid, encouraged any renter headed to eviction court call the organization to see if they qualify for free legal representation. During the pandemic, an emergency order has allowed attorneys from the Eviction Defense Coalition to be present at nearly all Harris County eviction dockets and offer last-minute representation, which she says has resulted in many tenants winning cases they likely would not have otherwise.

The dwindling help is hard on everybody, said Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association, an advocacy group for apartment owners, property managers and service suppliers.

“It’s hardest on the residents,” Teas said. “But luckily we have a robust job market right now, so we have a lot of opportunities for residents to earn rent money — moreso than a year ago.”

Nonetheless, eviction filings are already rising. In the last four weeks of December, 3,600 cases were filed in Harris County, up from 2,700 cases filed in the same four weeks a year before, according to Harris County data analyzed by January Advisors.

Evictions have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels (in the four weeks beginning Feb. 3, 2020, 5,600 eviction cases were filed). But renter advocates believe numbers will soon increase, especially with rent relief funds winding down.

“It’s a matter of time before we exceed pre-pandemic rates by leaps and bounds,” Karni said.

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Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Houston-Harris-County-rent-relief-gets-a-lifeline-16758820.php

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