As Eviction Crisis Looms, Local Leaders Ramp Up Relief
Help is on the way?
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, tenants and advocates are still bracing for the flood of evictions that threatens cities across the country. Earlier this month, the federal unemployment benefits through the CARES Act expired, along with the temporary moratorium on evictions in federally subsidized apartments and in homes covered by federally backed loans. While President Trump claimed to have addressed the moratorium by executive order, his memo is really a suggestion that federal agencies use discretion they already have. Without new comprehensive legislation, millions of Americans are on the verge of losing access to federal assistance and are fearful of losing their housing amid the pandemic.
In Austin, Mayor Steve Adler recently issued an order extending tenant protections by prohibiting landlords from issuing a notice to vacate, usually the first step in kicking off an eviction process. The order, effective immediately through Sept. 30, came on the heels of a similar extension granted by Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. On Friday, Aug. 7, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance that cities and counties do not have such power under Gov. Greg Abbott's executive orders controlling the pandemic response, but Paxton's opinion is non-binding and neither Adler nor Biscoe has amended or rescinded their orders.
These provisions have not canceled rent, only provided more time to pay what is already overdue. With the end to the pandemic nowhere in sight, federal protections dwindling, and Austin metro area rents still the highest in the state, tenants and advocates rightfully wonder if these measures will be enough to avert a crisis.
According to the Eviction Solidarity Dashboard, a visual display of eviction data from the Travis County Justice of the Peace judicial records compiled by Austin's Eviction Solidarity Network, 447 evictions were filed since March 13, the date on which Gov. Abbott declared a state of disaster in Texas due to COVID-19. Filings against tenants had been concentrated on the Eastside and Southside, in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
In the first two weeks of June, when the county's initial eviction moratorium was temporarily lifted and its courts resumed sessions, 370 eviction cases were set for hearing, mostly from the backlog filed before March. For now, the courts are hearing only cases where there's an imminent threat of physical harm or a threat of criminal activity. The current moratorium approach, mirrored in other cities across the country, views that extra time as crucial: The longer tenants are housed, the less risk there is of shelters and emergency services being overwhelmed.
But without more assistance, rent is only piling up, especially for tenants ineligible for federal stimulus checks, unemployment relief, and other benefits. Undocumented immigrants are likely the most vulnerable of our neighbors, says Shoshana Krieger, a lawyer and advocate working for Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA). For these individuals, kicking the can further down the road might not be the most sustainable solution, even if people get back to work. "The question is going to be whether the social safety net is able to catch up to the eviction crisis," says Krieger.
Given the magnitude of the situation, these concerns are not unwarranted. According to analysis by the global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, in Texas alone nearly 48% of renters will be unable to pay rent, putting them at risk of future eviction. The firm estimates a potential 1.1 million eviction proceedings in the next four months.
Even with very few cases proceeding in Travis County, not all concerns are quelled. For Krieger, COVID-19 has laid bare many cracks in the system by which the community handles its housing issues. One eviction is already one too many, she says, adding that it would be helpful for the broader community to recognize "how destabilizing an eviction is. The eviction crisis is a public health crisis that is entirely man-made and is entirely preventable."
Averting that crisis "is going to depend in large part on whether tenants can have access to rental assistance payments, and financial assistance more broadly," Krieger adds, citing demands that tenant advocates have been making since before the pandemic. In May, the Austin City Council announced the Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants (RENT) program, a $1.2 million pilot program to provide just such assistance.
That money helped more than 1,000 families, almost all below the area's median income, but that's a small fraction of the more than 10,000 total applicants, about half of whom were eligible under RENT guidelines. As the pandemic became prolonged, the need for another round of targeted funding quickly became clear.
On July 21, Council announced RENT 2.0, a nearly $18 million program sourced from federal aid and the city's rainy day funds. Over $13 million of that will go to direct rental assistance for eligible applicants selected through a lottery system. Smaller amounts will go toward programs for eviction protection, rent stabilization, and targeted community outreach. The funds are expected to be disbursed over the next three months and reach 10,000 families.
The $17.75 million sum is an unprecedented figure; pre-COVID tenant protections and city rental assistance programs were significantly smaller in scale. Disbursing funds through individual social service agencies was much slower, and sometimes covered only part of tenants' rent. "This program will actually entirely cover the whole month's rent," says Council Member Greg Casar. "And for very low-income Austinites that have lost their jobs entirely, we are going to be covering two or three months' rent just all the way. Because that is how serious the pandemic is."
Casar says a more durable solution would be for the federal government to cancel rent and mortgage payments for homeowners; in the meantime, people who are racking up serious debt require immediate relief. For this purpose, the city is also announcing a second installment of the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) fund, which Casar says will amount to nearly $50 million in funding for agencies and community organizations to distribute in the form of prepaid debit cards and other means of direct cash assistance. RISE is for "people [who] may have spent their last dime on rent but now can't afford medicine, or now can't afford rent, can't afford the internet that they need for their kids to keep learning or for them to keep working," Casar says.
The city's online application portal for both of these programs is scheduled to open on Monday, Aug. 17. Austin residents can receive assistance regardless of immigration status if they make 80% or less of the median family income and can show proof of job or income loss due to COVID-19.