The U.S. Treasury Department seized $1.9 million in unspent rent relief from five Texas counties and one city because local officials didn’t spend the money fast enough.
Eviction filings in several Texas cities are among the highest in the nation — even as millions of federal dollars aimed at helping struggling renters have sat unspent so long in some counties that the federal government is taking the money back.
Landlords in the Houston area filed more than 2,000 eviction cases last week, according to Eviction Lab, a research center based at Princeton University that tracks eviction filings — the highest number there since the pandemic began. Among the 31 cities that Eviction Lab tracks, Houston had the most eviction filings in the country for the week, with Dallas and Fort Worth also in the top five along with Phoenix and Las Vegas.
As the omicron surge is again forcing many workers to choose between a paycheck and the risk of COVID-19 exposure, the U.S. Treasury Department seized $1.9 million in unspent rent relief from five Texas counties — Jefferson, Brazoria, Hays, El Paso and Nueces — as well as the city of Laredo because local officials didn’t spend the money fast enough, the agency said earlier this month.
The money is instead being sent to other parts of the state or the country where local governments have distributed rental assistance more quickly.
The seizure of those funds comes as the reserve of rent relief dollars in Texas has emptied and eviction filings in the state’s major metropolitan areas have steadily neared pre-pandemic levels — all while state and federal bans on evictions have expired.
“We’re reaching a critical moment for low-income people who may be struggling to stay in their homes while many of the safeguards are collapsing at the same moment,” said Ben Martin, a senior research analyst for the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Housers.
The amount of federal rent relief dollars clawed back by the Treasury is a small fraction of the nearly $1 billion in federal dollars sent to local governments in Texas to help keep tenants in their homes. That money, meant to help struggling renters, is already becoming scarce in Texas.
The state agency in charge of Texas’ separate $1.9 billion rent relief and eviction diversion program stopped taking new applications in November, citing overwhelming demand.
Locally run rent relief programs also are tightening their purse strings. Houston and Harris County’s joint $283 million rent and utility assistance program — paid for with federal dollars — is soon expected to get a $13 million injection from the federal government. The program had $7.6 million left as of Wednesday — and only applicants who have an active eviction case have a shot at getting help.
The surge of evictions and the growing scarcity of emergency rental assistance funds for renters are “directly related,” said Dana Karni, an attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income Texans.
“I think what motivates landlords is the fact that the hope for rental assistance funds to basically fill the void is gone,” Karni said. “And so they really have the choice of having to decide whether they want to become charitable and let someone stay there for free or a significantly reduced rent or evict them so they could bring in a new tenant.”
Many landlords have good relationships with their tenants and try to avoid evicting renters if they can, said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association. But for many who have long gone without rent, it’s no longer possible to hold off.
“There aren’t other remedies available,” Mintz said. “So if I am, as a landlord, owed back rent and the person is not paying that obligation, I don’t have any other choices.”
Rent relief slow-going
Some counties that received federal dollars to help renters simply didn’t have the technological know-how to build programs from the ground up that could put that money in renters’ hands in a timely fashion, observers said.
“It hasn’t been moving in many of these areas as quickly as we would hope,” said Jay Malone, political director for Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, a coalition of Houston-area labor unions that has worked to connect struggling tenants with rent relief.
In Jefferson County in the state’s southeast corner — where Beaumont and Port Arthur are the biggest cities — officials received $10 million in federal rent relief funds but only spent about $1.3 million. As a result, the Treasury department pulled back about $315,000.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick blamed that outcome, in part, on the fact that officials had a hard time finding people to set up and administer their rent relief program, he said in an email.
In Montgomery County north of Houston, county officials voluntarily returned $7.1 million in rent relief dollars to the U.S. Treasury, reportedly citing a lack of demand for the county program.
But the state’s rental assistance program has helped more than 5,000 households there to the tune of $29 million — an indicator of demand.
For Malone, it’s a frustrating time. He said he’s seen public sentiment shift toward blaming tenants if they get evicted, despite a lack of affordable housing and a legal system that in Texas heavily favors landlords. He said it’s a far cry from earlier in the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we had this kind of moment of empathy, where we were thinking about people that were suffering, and that’s gone,” Malone said. “It’s really sad to see.”