Houston passes $15 million rental assistance program

Houston City Council approved a $15 million rental relief fund May 6. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Houston City Council approved a $15 million rental relief fund May 6. (Courtesy Fotolia)

Houston City Council approved a $15 million rental relief fund May 6. (Courtesy Fotolia)

A new $15 million rental relief fund approved by Houston City Council on May 6 will provide aid to renters behind on April and May rent due to coronavirus wage losses.

Landlords can begin applying for funds May 7 through BakerRipley, the organization charged with coordinating the effort. On May 13, applications will open for tenants to apply for funds as distributed through the landlords. A statewide ban on evictions is set to expire May 18.

To be eligible, tenants must live in Houston, be behind on April and/or May rent, be current on rent prior to April, confirm their inability to pay is a direct result of coronavirus impacts and have an income of less than 80% of the area median income.

Funds, which come from a $404 million influx from the federal government, are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and will likely run out quickly, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner, council members and advocates. The Metropolitan Organization of Houston, a faith-based organizing group, issued a statement that said an estimated $100 million could be needed to address 70,000 renters in need across the city.

Under the program, landlords will waive all late fees, penalties and interest from April and May; allow renters with rent higher than $1,056 to enter a payment plan; and rescind any prior eviction proceedings in April and May. Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex Tatum offered an amendment to extend the halt on late fees through June; however, it did not pass, and Mayor Turner said that adding that provision would slow the process.

"We’re only going to be able to help out 13,000 people, so we’re picking winners and losers, but it's better than nothing," Council Member Greg Travis said.

A long road to relief

The effort comes after several weeks of advocacy from the Gulf Coast AFL-CIO, Texas Housers and The Metropolitan Organization of Houston, among other groups

Gulf Coast AFL-CIO Politcal Director Jay Malone said that while he supports the measure and sees it as a promising starting point, more protections for renters are still needed, such as mandatory grace periods to give tenants time to work with landlords.

“In the ordinance overview, they’re estimating it could go to 7,000 to 13,000 people,” Malone said. “The scale of the problem is way greater. ... Additionally, the funds are limited to below 80% [area median income], and there are a lot of people who made more than that, have lost their income and they’re left in the cold.”

Council Member Letitia Plummer began advocating for such programs in March but said the final proposal was given to council members until less than 24 hours before City Council's May 6 meeting. While Plummer said she pproved of the measure, she said it could have come sooner and with more input from a coronavirus economic impact committee, the formation of which she proposed in March but was never formed.

“At no point do I want to stop any money from rolling down to people who need it,” she said. “It's already too late. This should’ve come before us weeks ago.”

Other cities in Texas approved mandatory grace periods and other efforts throughout March and April; however, very few are facing the same scale of budget shortfall. Turner said that with current constraints, there was no opportunity to use city funds on rental assistance.

"You asked us all to do this very quickly," he said, "and the rules from the federal government didn't originally say this could be used for rental relief. ... The new guidance just came down this week."

He said the program could be the first of many of its kind if additional funding comes available from Congress.

Applications will be available at www.houstonrentassistance.org.

Editor's note: this post was updated for clarity.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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