Kicked out after Christmas? Thousands in our area face eviction - what is being done to help?

HOUSTON – Lost jobs and reduced hours mean more Americans than ever are struggling to make ends meet. Many who can’t pay rent have had some protection. A federal ban on evictions has kept a roof over their heads. But that ban expires December 31st and with no real plan from local leaders. Our Investigates team is working to find your answers because tens of thousands of people could be out on the street in just a few weeks.

“It’s been very stressful. Figuring out what I’m going to do,” said Heather Hartman.

Days after this interview single mom Heather Hartman and her four young children were evicted from their Baytown home. Hers is one of 16,618 cases filed in Harris County since late March.

What is being done to help people facing eviction?

In June Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo created the Housing Stability Task Force, appointing Recovery Czars and Stakeholders.

The goal of the group is right on the front page of the website: to prevent evictions. They say they are determined to make the best attempt to reduce as many evictions as possible. But now, seven months later we have learned this hasn’t really happened.

“There’s no script or playbook for us to follow,” you can hear from the Youtube videos from the meetings.

Countless Zoom meetings later, they’ve made no recommendations that have made it out of the task force. (You can see all of the meetings here, posted on the website.)

Why isn’t more being done?

What does Harris County Judge Hidalgo think about that?

“The task force is only as helpful as the framework around it. In many ways, their hands are tied because of the state restrictions,” said Hidalgo.

“The fact that they’ve dragged their feet so much is inexcusable and that the mayor backed out,” said Eric Kwartler with the Eviction Defense Coalition.

Kwartler said the Houston Mayor backed out. He just pulled all resources out of the Housing Stability Taskforce in September and instead threw some money at tenants facing eviction. A total of $35-million. He put non-profit BakerRipley in charge of doling it out.

“We get all kinds of people calling in just saying, ‘I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do, can you help me?’” said Frederick Goodall with BakerRipley.

But they can’t help everyone. 108,076 have received at least a one-time payment from the City of Houston or Harris County since early May. Nearly five times as many people applied for help (526,000).

Out of $153-million earmarked for rent relief in our area, all that’s left now is about $2 million.

“People are waiting for money and in the meantime, people are being evicted,” said Dana Karni from Lone Star Legal Aid.

Is legal help for tenants the answer?

Dana Karni with Lone Star Legal Aid believes some of that money would be better spent providing renters with pro bono attorneys who can help them understand their rights in court.

“During this pandemic, tenants have more rights and protection than they have ever had in Harris county,” Karni explains.

But to date just over 4-percent of renters being evicted have had the help of an attorney. And that federal ban on evictions requires renters to do certain things in court to qualify. Most tenants didn’t and wouldn’t know that without the help of an attorney.

Right now the clock is ticking. On January 1, Houston could be facing a serious homelessness problem.

“Unless the moratorium is extended, we’re gonna see a huge flood of evictions in the first few weeks of January,” said Kwartler.

We did reach out to the leaders of the Housing Stability Task Force. Only one returned our emails, and that was with a phone call, but none of them would talk with us for this story.

Update

The morning after this story aired, Channel 2 received a phone call from Steven Dow, the executive director of LISC Houston (Local Initiatives Support Coalition). Speaking on behalf of the Housing Stability Task Force, Dow directed us to the task force’s website that was recently updated to reflect “workstreams and recommendations.” Some of the recommendations dated as early as August 4, 2020, do not make it clear who exactly the task force presented them to, but none were accepted or approved by the city of Houston or Harris County.

If you or someone you know is facing eviction or needs help paying rent there are a few limited resources still available to you.

Need help paying your rent? Resources that can help

Eviction Diversion Program - Harris County is one of nine counties in Texas testing out the program after receiving Federal Cares Act money for the program. Gulf Coast Community Services Association in Houston received $600,000 to help landlords and tenants.

BakerRipley - for the remaining $2 million left for people who are in need.

City of Houston Direct Assistance Fund. The city of Houston has provided $35 million in Cares Act funding for rental assistance to people who cannot pay rent as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. The program is administered by BakerRipley and remains open through Dec. 30. You can apply for assistance at www.Houstonrentalssistance.Org. Your landlord must be registered with this program in order for you to receive rent relief.

Houston City Council also recently approved $20 million in direct assistance. Recipients will receive direct payments of $1,200 and the money can be used to pay rent or for any other need at the recipients’ discretion.

Harris County Precinct One Foundation has a Free Eviction Legal Assistance Hotline you can call if you are facing eviction. The number is (346) 250-1069.

Catholic Charities is distributing money for Harris county. All of the $60 million from Harris County has been allocated, but you can contact Catholic Charities for other resources.

Lone Star Legal Aid has free and helpful resources for tenants to help them stay in their homes.

Eviction Defense Council

United Way of Greater Houston - even if you have been denied help in the past, contact the United Way to see if you qualify for something else.


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