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With pandemic safety net policies expiring, renters brace for eviction

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Houston-area renters line up for rent relief assistance at La Iglesia del Pueblo on July 5.

Houston-area renters line up for rent relief assistance at La Iglesia del Pueblo on July 5. Jen Rice

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It’s become a regular monthly event in the pandemic: hundreds of Houstonians lining up, waiting for hours to receive free legal aid and assistance in navigating the process of applying for rent relief money

The pop-up clinic shows up at churches and community centers and is run by lawyers and volunteers, along with local unions and county officials. Everyone in line is living on the edge of eviction. 

“There are hundreds of people here and we’re doing our best to move through them, but it’s so frustrating for everyone, especially the people with kids,” said Eric Kwartler, an attorney with South Texas College of Law, at an event at Harvest Time Church in Houston in late June. “We had someone come through who had just had surgery and had a gaping wound. We’re trying to help everybody with unique needs but it’s just overwhelming.”

The pandemic safety net is rapidly disappearing in cities like Houston, an area that’s already seen more than 34,000 eviction cases filed since March 2020. 

The lines at rent relief events could become longer since Texans lost their pandemic unemployment benefits at the end of June. Texas Governor Greg Abbott let the federal program expire early, saying the state’s economy was back on track. In June, the unemployment rate in Texas was at 6.5%

But many people in the Houston area haven’t recovered from the pandemic downturn yet, said Jay Malone, political director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation. 

“The jobs that are coming back, a lot of them pay poverty wages,” Malone said. “What we’re experiencing is not a Texas comeback; we’re experiencing an increase in poverty. And there are a lot of industries that just haven’t come back.”

The next pandemic safety net policy to disappear could be the federal eviction moratorium — it’s set to expire at the end of July.

Dana Karni, a Houston attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said she is bracing for August. If the federal moratorium expires, many cases that have been paused during the pandemic will be back on the dockets.

“The tenants are going to be scrambling,” Karni said. “It’s likely going to be quite a mess in the courthouse, an overwhelming mess.” 

Attorneys assist Houstonians with completing the eviction moratorium paperwork at Harvest Time Church on July 30, 2021. (Jen Rice)

By late July, the city of Houston and Harris County’s joint rent relief fund had handed out $146 million to around 39,000 families to pay the rent, according to BakerRipley and Catholic Charities, the nonprofit organizations administering the program. 

Robin Millard, one of those helped by the fund, moved with her daughter from Seattle to Houston just before the pandemic began. Her landlord filed to evict them but also helped them get rent relief funding. 

“The day that we were supposed to be going to court, we got the approval letter,” Millard said. “So, it was just by the skin of my teeth everything kind of worked out.” 

It’s not a race against time everywhere, though. The Austin area has had a moratorium since March of 2020, and that means it’s had far fewer eviction cases.

Currently, Austin landlords can’t evict tenants who owe less than five months’ worth of rent. If a tenant owes more than five months’ rent, landlords are required to apply for rent relief money before they can evict. 

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