Last Saturday, Rashelle Price and hundreds of other Houston-area renters lined up for hours to get help at a free legal aid and rent relief clinic at La Iglesia del Pueblo, a church in Pasadena.
Price works for a railroad, but has seen her hours cut dramatically during the pandemic, as she has also dealt with virtual schooling for her three kids.
“I went from working almost 80 hours every week to working 30 hours every two weeks. Sometimes not even that. My check is barely anything,” Price said. “We can’t survive like this.”
The pandemic safety net is rapidly disappearing in Houston, even as many people aren’t back to full-time work. Harris County has already seen more than 30,000 eviction cases filed since the start of the pandemic, according to the data firm January Advisors.
Overwhelming turnout at the rent relief event could be a sign of more stress to come, as Houstonians already on the brink of eviction are set to lose two major protections in the coming weeks: Gov. Greg Abbott is stopping federal pandemic unemployment benefits this month, insisting that Texas jobs and the economy are back on track, and a federal eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30.
“I don’t want any of my kids to have to go live in no shelter,” Price said. “I’m going to be very scared about that, because (there are) more people there, and COVID and everything going on.”
Around 500 people received legal counseling and help signing up for the state and local rent relief programs on Saturday. Organizers started the monthly pop-up shortly after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the eviction moratorium into effect last fall, where they helped people fill out the required paperwork. They’ve moved the event to different locations around Harris County, staffed mainly by volunteers and coordinated by local labor unions and nonprofits, Harris County commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia’s offices, and attorneys with South Texas College of Law, Lone Star Legal Aid and Houston Volunteer Lawyers.
“Even if we do talk to them,” Price said, “it’s still no guarantee that we’re not going to get evicted. It’s no guarantee that they’re going to be able to help everybody, and we’ve been in this line — I’ve been here since 10 o’clock this morning. It’s now almost four o’clock.”
Volunteers stayed hours after the event was supposed to end, and still had to turn people away.
Price said her employer hasn’t given any sign that her shifts will return to normal. Some of her coworkers have gotten COVID-19, and at least one is living in a homeless shelter. Her sister has also lost work during the pandemic, and has been waiting for months to begin receiving unemployment benefits.
Tamara Merritt — a mother of two, who’s now six months pregnant — said she had to take off work to spend the day in the church parking lot waiting in line for help. She makes $11 an hour working in customer service.
“I got an eviction notice,” Merritt said. “I’m two months behind on my rent. Rent resources are not coming through in a timely fashion because so many people are using their resources.”
The Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program has pledged or paid out $98 million of its current funding, with $44 million left to distribute. The statewide Texas Rent Relief Program has paid out $143 million of its $1.1 billion fund.
Not every Texas city is facing the same crisis. Unlike in Houston, most Austin renters still cannot be evicted during the pandemic, and local protection will continue even if the federal moratorium expires this month.
Austin has had an eviction ban in place since the pandemic began. As of June 1, landlords cannot file to evict tenants who owe less than five months rent, and they’re required to apply for rental assistance before they can evict a tenant owing more than five months of rent.
Over the past year, La Iglesia del Pueblo has handed out water during the freeze, served as a COVID-19 vaccination site, and now has hosted rent relief events, according to David Calzonci, who is part of the church’s leadership team.
Most of the people they’re seeing aren’t living month-to-month — they’re living week-to-week, he said.
“A lot of people are saying that they had to take the day off of work,” Calzonci said. “They have eviction notices, they have their statements showing that proof of past due bills, disconnection notices and everything like that. So it’s really heartbreaking to see that. Everybody’s on their last check. Everybody is waiting to see what is going to happen next week.”
While Abbott is ending the pandemic unemployment benefits program in Texas, Calzonci said that jobs have not returned in the Pasadena area.
“Some people see that the economy is picking up,” Calzonci said. “But on our side of Pasadena, on our side of the county, it’s a longer process when it comes to the lower income side of the community.”
Barbara Dolney, president of IATSE Theatrical Wardrobe Union local 896 for Houston and Galveston, has volunteered at the rent relief event since it began in October.
She said the first person in line on Saturday arrived at 5:30 a.m., and there were around 40 people waiting when she showed up — two hours before the event was set to start.
Most of the people attending the events don’t have access to a computer or internet, and many don’t speak English, Dolney said.
Dolney herself has been out of work all year — typically, she’s working on costumes, hair and makeup at Houston theaters. She’s worried about how union members are going to survive when the pandemic unemployment benefits end in a couple weeks.
“My industry is not coming back until at least September,” Dolney said. “The theatrical industry, the live events industry, will not be back. My workers will still be out of work for months.”
If the federal eviction moratorium ends this month, as many expect it will, Houston landlords could file a slew of evictions in July, stretching the monthly pop-up event well beyond its limits.
“People need rental assistance, and we’re seeing, here at this site, unprecedented numbers,” said Eric Kwartler, an eviction attorney with South Texas College of Law.
Kwartler said he hoped people receiving eviction notices will get help before they give up.
“Don’t self-evict. Don’t leave,” Kwartler said. “You get a notice to vacate, don’t go. You have rights. There is money.”
Meanwhile, for Houston-area renters like Rashelle Price, time is running out.
Price said she’s behind on her rent and has already gotten a final warning from her landlord.
With the federal moratorium possibly ending, there is no state or local measure in place to help.
“The people in Houston are just getting impatient,” Price said. “We actually need our mayor and our governor to actually step up and say, ‘hey, we understand what you’re going through,’ instead of just speaking on TV and not making things really happen. Like this is crazy.”