Last Tuesday, the Texas Rent Relief program opened its application portal for what was supposed to be two weeks. It closed just two days later. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said it received a record 70,000 applications in the first 24 hours, and the demand for help was likely to outpace available funds.
It’s one of several pandemic-era initiatives meant to help renters, but many of those programs are winding down or have already ended. Meanwhile, the cost of housing remains high. Can Texans expect more help in the future, or perhaps legislative action to protect renters?
Ben Martin, research director for housing information nonprofit Texas Housers, spoke with the Texas Standard about the need for expanded assistance programs, as well as bills in the Legislature that would help renters.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: First, let’s talk a little bit about the current state of housing assistance in Texas. The Texas Rent Relief program was so overwhelmed with applications; are there other pandemic-era housing assistance programs still available?
Ben Martin: Essentially, all of the pandemic-era rental assistance and other assistance programs for renters to help keep them stably housed have ended or are in the process of winding down. During the pandemic, there were historic protections in the court system and in local governments in Texas and historic levels of funding from the federal government to keep low-income renters housed and to avoid compounding the public health crisis with an eviction crisis. Those funds have dried up, and as we’ve seen, there’s still incredible extraordinary need. As you say, rents are rising at the same time to historic levels. Renters are really feeling the pinch right now.
Well, what about issues in the Texas housing market more broadly? We know rents have gone up a lot in major cities over the past few years. How is your organization seeing that play out – are we seeing more evictions, for example?
In 2022, in the state of Texas, there were at least 270,000 evictions filed. That is not only more than the pandemic years 2020 and 2021, that’s the highest number ever recorded. So we’re really seeing this fall downhill, and the most vulnerable tenants are losing stable housing, and many of them are experiencing homelessness. One in four extremely low-income renters in the state of Texas can find an affordable and available unit. We have a deficit of three out of four units for those lowest-income families searching for them. There’s no place for them to go.
Looking to the Legislature: There are several bills that would intervene in the housing marketplace more broadly and would largely redound to the benefit of those who already have enough cash for a down payment or who can get financing and arrange financing. I know you work largely with low-income Texans – are you seeing any legislation being advanced that would help those individuals?
There is legislation advancing that would help those individuals. There’s also legislation advancing that would harm those individuals. We’re paying the closest attention right now to the historic budget surplus that the State of Texas has. We have over $32 billion that our legislators are figuring out what to do with and how to spend this session. There’s also over $5 billion in remaining American Rescue Plan funds that the state has to decide how to spend. So far, over half of those funds appear to be going to homeowners and property owners, and $0 of those funds will be going to support the 38% of low-income Texans that rent.
If people need housing assistance or help dealing with evictions, what can they do? Is there a good resource you would recommend right away?
I would recommend that they go to texastenant.org, which is a website that outlines all of the rights that a tenant has in signing a lease while they’re renting a place and if they are dealing with the end of a lease or an eviction. I also recommend that they go to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs website and they can find resources for available support there.