Since April 2020, several benefits and assistance programs have been rolled out to help Dallas residents and others throughout Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those programs was the issuance of a federal eviction moratorium to prevent evictions influenced by COVID-19 hardship, initially set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020.
However, as the pandemic continued, so too did the moratorium, first through March 31, then June 30 and then July 31, 2021. The CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who recently extended the moratorium from June 30 to expire July 31, has not made it clear if the current moratorium will be extended beyond July 31, 2021.
Furthermore, the Texas Supreme Court declined to extend the statewide eviction moratorium which expired March 31, 2021, leaving tenants and landlords to ask, “What’s Next?”
There are tense feelings surrounding the [federal and local] eviction moratoriums. Many landlords feel they have been cast as villains and left to fend for themselves this past year and say they have had to suffer or close their business due to unpaid rent and few government bailouts.
“By the end of July 2021, the national rent debt will most likely be at an all-time high of approximately twenty-five to twenty-six billion!” stated Bob Pinnegar, President and CEO of the National Apartment Association. According to Pinnegar. “The [financial] impacts of the federal eviction moratorium are massive [for landlords and renters]. It jeopardizes safe, affordable housing. Nonetheless, evictions take time, and the process could take up to ninety days [in most states] or a few months, so the incentive is for tenants and landlords to work together, receive direct renters’ assistance, and keep residents in their homes.”
This process most often looks like allowing owners to apply for state assistance on behalf of residents through programs such as texasrentrelief.com or local assistance programs like Services of Hope paying landlords and apartment complexes directly. “We are here, and we are ready to help families! Please tell your neighbors and those in need of assistance to apply today on our website,” exclaimed Latame Phillips, Chief Executive Office at Services of Hope, when asked what resources were available for struggling renters in Dallas.
It is important to note that Texas Unemployment Benefits for Pandemic Relief ended June 26, 2021, per an executive order by Governor Greg Abbott. Since then, investigative reporters have discovered that over one billion dollars of federal rental assistance funding is sitting in limbo, currently undistributed.
Gov. Abbott and his supporters deny any wrongdoing over his decision; turning attention to his [limited to nineteen counties] eviction diversion program that became statewide in February 2021 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new emergency order from the Texas Supreme Court released on Monday, the statewide diversion program, which was set to expire on July 27, 2021, will now continue until Oct. 1, 2021.
Gov. Abbott first announced the creation of the Texas Eviction Diversion Program on Sept. 1, 2020. He stated that the program would use $171 million in CARES Act funding for rental assistance as well as legal services for Texans facing eviction. The program offers up to fifteen months of rental and utility assistance for tenants. Once tenants and their landlords agree in court to pursue state assistance, eviction proceedings can be delayed for up to sixty days. Once approved, the landlord will receive lump-sum payment(s) for past-due rent as well as late fees, and the tenant will be allowed to stay, moving the eviction case to dismissal and erasing it from public record.
As of Monday, a judge can postpone an eviction for sixty days if a landlord has a pending application with the program on behalf of a tenant or if both parties express interest in joining the Texas Eviction Diversion Program. Eligibility is reserved for those with an open eviction case who have a household income at or below eighty percent of the median income for their city/county.
However, while the program requires a mutual agreement between landlord and tenant, it was specifically created to be a voluntary-for-landlords alternative to evictions – hence the distinction between “diversion” and “moratorium” – meaning that landlords can still evict tenants if they prefer that option to applying for the federal funds.
While the consensus has been that of most owners opting to be flexible and work with residents, researchers from University of Texas at Dallas’ Institute for Urban Policy Research found that almost 16,000 evictions were filed in Dallas County during the 2020 pandemic – nearly half the rate of 2019.
Both nationally and statewide, homelessness has increased due to the pandemic, and housing experts such as Sandra Rollins, Executive Director of Texas Tenants Union, feel the situation will get worse if we do not get a clear, concise comprehension and implementation of anti-eviction policy and best next steps for the most vulnerable moving forward.
This brings us to a second question: Has the CDC overextended their constitutional authority by issuing federal pandemic moratoriums? The answer has yet to be determined, but several state supreme courts are exploring this question, including Texas. Currently, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that adherence to the federal moratorium by landlords is at their own discretion.
As for eviction cases, those are handled by a Justice of the Peace, and their decision on the [pandemic housing] situation will settle on sympathy for landlords or sympathy for tenants. It should be noted that a Justice of the Peace resides over civil, non-criminal cases involving misdemeanors, small civil disputes, landlord/tenant disputes and more. They also conduct inquiries and may perform marriage ceremonies. And some might even argue, they are now receiving the final say over pandemic emergencies/solutions, thanks to the position of the Texas Supreme Court.
Services of Hope (SOH) is a Dallas-based community organization whose mission is to help provide food and financial assistance to those in need. Their vision is to provide holistic lifestyle coaching and assistance through character development and educational programs and partnerships. Food pantry information can be found on their website: www.servicesofhope.org/pantry-locations/