Two days after Christmas, President Donald Trump signed legislation that would send $25 billion-worth of assistance to struggling renters across America. It was part of that big coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.
Jessica Galleshaw, director of Dallas’ Office of Community Care, said it feels like she’s building a plane in mid-air. Her office will deploy $40 million of incoming federal rental assistance.
“We have to do it all really quickly and we have to start helping people as soon as we possibly can with this,” Galleshaw said.
The money will help low- and middle-income people who’ve fallen behind on rent during the pandemic to get caught up.
Galleshaw expects Dallas’ portion of the federal rental assistance to be available in early February. In the meantime, Galleshaw and others in the city government are trying to figure out a whole host of details about exactly what the money can be used for, who qualifies and what kind of documentation they’ll need to show.
Federal money always has strings attached and hoops to jump through. Galleshaw wants agencies working with the city to have the simplest and most flexible process possible, while working within the bounds of federal law, so that as many people can be helped as possible, as quickly as possible.
“I hope that we can get service to those who need it the most. Some people are many, many months behind, and so without this intervention, there’s no way they can get caught up,” Galleshaw said.
Candy Bradshaw, program director for Harmony Community Development Corporation in southwest Dallas, hears from people who are struggling and desperate.
“I have a lot of people who are in panic mode, who are saying, ‘What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to live?’” she said.
The Center on Budget Policies and Priorities found that nearly one in five renter households in the U.S. were behind on rent in December, with Black and Latino renters facing even higher rates of housing insecurity.
Now, Bradshaw says she’s hearing from many who haven’t been able to pay January’s rent either.
“With COVID, literally, it’s every day that we get at least 10 calls,” from people who need help, Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw estimates her office can help about 25 renters apply for assistance each week. With ten calls a day, it’s tough math to figure out how to meet the need in the community.
There are other challenges facing agencies that’ll help people get rental assistance.
Technology access is a big one. Bradshaw’s organization enlisted apartment managers to help tenants fax or scan documents needed to apply for rental assistance, and is planning a drive-through rental assistance event once the next round of funding arrives.
Just getting the word out so people know there are places to turn to for help is a challenge in the first place, said Ashley Brundage, who leads housing and homelessness efforts at the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.
“Yes, it’s great that the money is coming down again, and the moratorium is there, but we just have more work to do,” Brundage said.
A Coordinated Response
Brundage also co-chairs the Dallas Area Eviction Prevention Task Force, a few dozen business and nonprofit leaders, service agencies and philanthropies, government officials and clergy that came together last year. The idea is to bring everyone to the table to prevent homelessness and evictions by identifying barriers and coming up with creative solutions.
By November, when the group first met, a massive wave of evictions seemed all but inevitable.
Months of inaction in Congress – largely the result of Republican infighting – meant that funds used for rental assistance would run out at the end of 2020, along with a nationwide moratorium on evictions.
That cliff’s edge was pushed back by Congress’ last-minute bill last month, but the situation for many renters is still dire.
The eviction moratorium issued by the CDC, which Congress extended a month, is helpful but far from fool-proof, and growing less effective. It’s not automatic, and it only prevents eviction for failure to pay rent.
Ten months into the full-blown pandemic in Texas, lease terms are expiring, leaving tenants vulnerable, said attorney Mark Melton, who runs Dallas Evictions 2020, during a task force meeting last week.
“The fact that their lease has now expired is a reason to file for eviction, other than for the nonpayment of rent. And so, in those cases, the CDC order doesn’t apply and those evictions are being granted,” Melton said.
Meanwhile, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance has seen a sizable increase in newly homeless people, with roughly 165 additional people each month entering the homeless services network during the pandemic compared to the same months last year.
So, Brundage said, the task force members are focusing not only on identifying ways to make the rollout of new rental assistance funds as smooth and effective as possible. They’re working to identify shelter space and temporary housing for people who lose their homes in a city where homeless shelters are full.
While Brundage points out evictions can be devastating to a family’s financial stability, research shows that an uptick in evictions also increases the spread of the coronavirus, making this economic issue a public health issue as well.
“Putting people into homes or keeping them in their homes is just as important as wearing a mask right now. We can’t have more people on our streets in this city,” Brundage said.
Hope For The Future
The arrival of a new president may well mean new tools and resources will come soon.
Last week, President-elect Joe Biden called for another $30 billion to help people struggling to pay rent and utilities, part of a major aid package. He also pledged to extend a nationwide eviction moratorium.
“This will provide more than 25 million Americans greater stability instead of living on the edge every month,” the President-elect said. “I’m asking Congress to do its part by funding rental assistance for help 14 million hard-hit families and tenants. It’ll also be a bridge to economic recovery for countless mom-and-pop landlords.”
That would extend more time and money to help people facing eviction. Still, Candy Bradshaw from Harmony CDC said more long-term solutions are what’s necessary if Dallas wants to get serious about housing stability.
“This temporary rental assistance is not the permanent solution,” she said. “It’s equitable housing. It’s equitable wages. It’s how do you help equip people to get jobs that lead to truly livable wages.”
That’s work that’ll likely remain when the pandemic is under control.