The Austin Chronicle

Housing Advocates Demand Relief, Protections as Eviction Crisis Looms

A network of local housing organizations are calling on state leaders to craft a plan for preventing evictions amid the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic

By Jose Benjamin Montaño, December 25, 2020, News

A network of local housing organizations are calling on state leaders to craft a plan for preventing evictions amid the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday afternoon, Dec. 21, members of the Austin Housing Coalition, Texas Housers, and the Coalition of Tex­ans With Disabilities hosted a press conference to demand an indefinite extension of eviction moratoriums and other protections, as tenants wait for more assistance from the federal government. "It's unconscionable to push hundreds of thousands of Texans into that uncertain future when we are facing a completely foreseeable and preventable crisis of homelessness due to our state's inaction," said Brittany Baize, director of development and communications at Family Eldercare and vice chair of the AHC.

The press conference came on the heels of new moratorium extensions that advocates say will provide short-term relief to some struggling tenants. Travis County Judge Andy Brown issued an extension of the county's current moratorium, prohibiting landlords from issuing notices to vacate to tenants who fail to make rent until Feb. 1, 2021. Austin Mayor Steve Adler extended a similar order that applies within the city limits. Meanwhile, the federal eviction moratorium issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was set to expire Dec. 31, but the new COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress late Monday night will also extend those provisions nationwide until Jan. 31.

For advocates, the recent developments are positive but will not be enough to tackle the crisis, especially given the prevalence of housing insecurity among those who were struggling before the onset of the public health emergency. "The pandemic," Baize said, "has really laid bare massive structural inequities in our system."

For many tenants and homeowners, rent and mortgage payments are the first bills to prioritize. But among the elderly and the disabled, crippling unemployment rates and little targeted assistance have left households looking for places to cut costs, often facing a difficult choice between paying for housing or saving up enough to refill vital prescriptions. Chase Bearden, deputy director at CTD, says most opt for "keeping that roof over their head at the risk of their health and their families' health."

The advocates note that throughout the pandemic, Austin and Travis County tenants facing hardship have found relief through local programs like Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) and Relief for Emer­gen­cy Needs of Tenants (RENT). Other Texans have not been afforded the same benefits, despite the clear need. In Harris County, for example, little has been done to slow evictions. According to census survey data cited by Christina Rosales, deputy director of Texas Housers, one in 10 adults in Texas is either behind on their rent or mortgage payment, or is worried about being able to make the next payment on time.

Rosales criticized the lack of initiative shown at the state level. "State leaders are halfheartedly standing up an eviction diversion and rental assistance program that won't reach the entire state for months," she said. "We ask that Gov. Abbott and the Texas Supreme Court implement an eviction moratorium until there is a fully functioning moratorium that will stave off evictions for the duration of this pandemic and the economic downturn that it has caused." On Tuesday, Dec. 22, the court extended its emergency eviction relief program through mid-March but not a full moratorium on evictions.

Advocates recognize that no plan will be easy to execute, but one thing is certain: Any effective strategy will require a multipronged approach. "It is not just a moratorium that is necessary. It's a moratorium combined with rental and mortgage assistance, with effective program delivery, with a plan and a timeline that acknowledge the full scope of the crisis," Baize concluded. And if the plan fails anywhere along that line, "then things still fall apart."

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