Report Details How Texas Rent Relief Program Has Been Plagued By Problems

In February, Texas launched a program to help people who had missed rent payments because of the pandemic. By the end of March, only 250 people had actually got help paying for rent out of 72,000 completed applications.

By Christopher ConnellyApril 7, 2021 10:01 am, , , , ,

A scathing staff report from the Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs released Monday details a host of issues that have plagued the more than $1 billion rent relief program.

“Here we are at the beginning of April and still only about 200 Texas families have actually received direct help from this billion dollar program which is unacceptable and we need to continue to get this worked out quickly,” Rep. Phil Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Urban Affairs, told Texas Public Radio.

Faced with a pot of federal money larger than TDHCA’s annual budget, the state agency contracted Houston-based management consultancy Horne LLP to run the Texas Rent Relief program, agreeing to pay the company more than $42 million.

Just as the program launched, the state was hit with the massive winter storm in February, which sidelined a third of the contracted phone operators for days, the report said.

Software problems left the program struggling and spotty, with tenants and landlords complaining of accessibility problems, unanswered phone calls, and “the inability to check the status of an application,” according to the report. A switch to a new software caused system outages and forced applicants to re-apply.

According to the report, of the 176,000 people who have begun applications, just over 1,000 have had their applications approved. And only 250 of payments have been sent.

A graphic from the report by the Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs shows the status of applications to the Texas Rent Relief program as of March 31, 2020.

“It’s people’s lives at stake here, because when evictions happen, their lives are torn apart. They lose their jobs, they lose their health, they have trouble with their relationships, they have trouble getting back on their feet,” said Christina Rosales, deputy director for the advocacy group Texas Housers.

Rosales said she’s heard landlords say at eviction court that they’re already so frustrated and tired by the slow pace and confusing nature of rental assistance programs that they’d rather evict tenants than hold out for assistance.

“How are landlords going to have faith in a rental relief program, and how are they going to hang on their tenants, when this is happening?” Rosales said.

High stakes

When the pandemic hit last year, millions of people across the country lost wages after they were laid off, furloughed or saw work hours cut. Many people, especially women, have been unable to work because of child-care responsibilities. For others, health issues made going to work unsafe while the pandemic raged out of control.

While many have gone back to work, the unemployment rate remains significantly higher than it was before the pandemic.

Exactly how many people have fallen behind on rent over the past year is unclear. Researchers have offered estimates of past-due rent in the U.S. ranging from $8.4 billion to $52.6 billion.

What is clear is that a lot of Texans could use the help of the Texas Rent Relief program.

“We have more than $1 million of unpaid rent dating back to March of last year,” said Ian Mattingly, president of LumaCorp, which manages about 7,000 rental apartments in Texas. “And a large and growing percentage of that is over a year old at this point.”

Mattingly said more than 400 of his company’s residents have tried to apply to the program. After the software glitches, they were asked to re-submit their applications. Of the roughly 200 that have completed applications, only two have been approved for funding.

None have actually received payments.

“This is our third or fourth round of rental assistance for some of these folks, and the documentation process for each round has been different and the application process has been a little bit different,” he said. “And frankly, they’re tired.”

A graphic from the report by the Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs shows the total value of requests for rental assistance from the Texas Rent Relief program as of March 31, 2020.

Mattingly also heads the Dallas Apartment Association, which represents landlords.

While he’s cautiously optimistic that the Texas Rent Relief program’s problems have largely been addressed, fundamental questions remain unanswered.

Altogether, about $2 billion of the federal rental and utility assistance funds approved by Congress last year were earmarked for Texas. Most went into the statewide Texas Rent Relief program, and the rest when to city and county governments.

That’s created a confusing patchwork of rental assistance across the state, with rules for how to navigate them still unclear, and it’s forcing landlords into an odd new role.

“We’ve had to handhold our residents through these various processes, obtaining the correct documentation, helping them with scanning,” Mattingly was told by one landlord.

Working to fix the problems

In an email, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Tirloni said the report is a “snapshot in time” and said that the program “has made tremendous strides in our efforts to provide assistance to Texas renters in need.”

Despite the initial problems and the impact of the winter storm, she said application processing is improving. The report noted that the department is staffing up to process the backlog of applications and man the call center.

“We are working hard to ensure Texans get access as quickly as possible,” she said.

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Executive Director Bobby Wilkinson is expected to address lawmakers on the Urban Affairs committee on Wednesday.

KERA also reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott for comment on the report. He oversees the state’s executive branch, including the housing and community affairs department. A spokesperson did not respond to the request for comment.

Housing advocates acknowledge the challenges of standing up such a massive program, but Christina Rosales from the group Texas Housers said there’s a larger issue at play here: As a state, Texas regularly fails to focus its vast resources on helping people in the midst of a disaster.

For the past year, housing advocates have been pointing to the slow-rolling housing crisis brought on by the pandemic. The state’s leadership should’ve been prepared to get money out to struggling renters as soon as Congress approved the funding, Rosales said, but instead have focused on their own political interests.

“There’s no excuse,” Rosales said. “We’ve been expecting there to be aid [for renters] for months and months so there should have been a plan in place.”

Barriers remain

Even if the program’s software and staffing struggles have been addressed, Rosales still worries that the program’s reliance on online applications will leave eligible renters unable to apply.

Those most affected by the pandemic and its economic devastation – low-wage workers, Black and Latino Texans, and rural communities – are also the least likely to have internet at home.

The report was released less than a week after the Supreme Court of Texas let lapse a set of rules for how courts in the state enforce a federal eviction ban, which the Biden administration extended through into the summer.

Housing experts say they expect expiration of the eviction rules will make the already spotty protections of the eviction moratorium even more unevenly applied. That makes removing barriers to helping families catch up on the rent even more vital, Rosales said.

Texans shouldn’t have to overcome so many bureaucratic and technological challenges just to get help that Congress already funded, Rosales said. She’s impressed by how many do persevere.

“I am amazed at the strength and resilience that these folks have to figure out how to get on the internet, when they don’t have internet at home, and their resourcefulness in getting rent relief at this point,” she said. “It is kind of a miracle that they are able to do it.”

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA’s One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at [email protected].You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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