Harris County and the city of Houston are partnering on a new $159 million rental relief program that will allow residents to apply for funds to help pay overdue rent from as far back as April.

The program is funded largely with money from the U.S. Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance Program, approved as part of a federal stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress in December. Harris County received $74 million, and the city of Houston received $70 million while also chipping in roughly $15 million in federal funds from other sources.

Officials expect to begin accepting applications from landlords Feb. 18, while residents should be able to apply starting Feb. 25, according to the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which is running the program with BakerRipley. The two groups also partnered on previous rental relief programs in the county last year.

Aligning the two programs along with a statewide rent relief fund has slowed the process, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. In response, he said Houston City Council will vote on a grace period ordinance Feb. 17, which would give renters until the end of March to resolve payment issues before landlords can pursue an eviction.

“We are all seeking to align ourselves to be as effective as possible, and that does take a little time because you can rush out the door, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re using the dollars in the most effective way,” Turner said at a Feb. 10 Council meeting.

Roughly 36,000 eviction cases have been filed in county courts so far in 2021, according to January Advisors.

In addition to allowing renters to get help for rent from as far back as April, the new program can also allow applicants to seek help for up to two months into the future. Residents can also apply for some past-due utility bills, including electricity, gas and water.

How to apply

Unlike past rental assistance programs, Houston and Harris County will operate this one under the same guidelines, including eligibility requirements and rules for how to apply. The entire $159 million pot of funding will be open to residents regardless of whether they live within or outside of the city of Houston.

Applicants must have an income lower than 80% of the average family median income to apply, as well as being able to demonstrate housing instability and prove the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on their economic situation.

Applicants who have an income lower than 50% of the average family median income will be prioritized, as will residents who have been unemployed for 90 days or more. Aside from that, applications will be selected randomly, as opposed to on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Catholic Charities.

The new program was approved several days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a $1 billion statewide rental relief program that will function under similar guidelines.

At a Feb. 9 meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he hopes the state will coordinate with the county to prevent confusion. A compliance program is underway within the county to ensure benefits are not duplicated for any residents, according to documents submitted to the Commissioners Court.

More information can be found here.

Landlord participation

The rental relief program run by Harris County in 2020 required tenants and landlords to work together on an application in order to be approved. Officials said they still encourage landlord participation, but funding in the new program can also be awarded directly to tenants in instances where landlords refuse to sign on.

Tenants who apply for relief will be asked to select their landlord from a list of those who have enrolled. If a landlord has not enrolled in the program, they will be contacted and asked to enroll. Once the amount is confirmed by both tenant and landlord, a payment will be made directly to the landlord's bank account.

Garcia said it is important to keep in mind that landlords are also hurting. He said the ability to help people pay rent for two months into the future—instead of just one month at a time—will be a "game changer" for a lot of people, landlords and tenants alike.

"The way this program is structured, it will now allow us to really make the landlord community whole, recognizing the pandemic is not over yet [and] the economy is not repaired yet," Garcia said at the Feb. 9 meeting.