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Texas halted evictions, giving renters some relief. But what happens when the moratorium ends?

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DALLAS — Shanice Al Khlifat’s day-to-day life has become a series of efforts to hang on. The 28-year-old is trying to find a stable job after losing two since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the economy: one as a dispatcher at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and another at a call center.

As another month rolls around, so too does another round of bills that hundreds of thousands of Texans are trying to pay. Al Khlifat has filed for unemployment, but she hasn't yet been approved or received a federal stimulus check. And despite a moratorium on evictions, her landlord has pressured tenants to pay up. So Al Khlifat scraped together the $734 for this month's rent from relatives who are also struggling financially.

“They regularly sent out a message saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to have a payment, and we don’t want to have to evict you,’” Al Khlifat said. “I had to try to find every resource, every family member that I could to help me pay my apartment, because I didn't want to just be put out in the street.”

Al Khlifat knows that she is protected by the Texas Supreme Court's eviction moratorium that lasts until May 18.

Housing advocates, experts and the industry have applauded that state moratorium — along with similar federal and local protections — but there’s little clarity on what will happen after they expire. The statewide moratorium halts trials, hearings and eviction procedures, but it doesn’t suspend payments or late fees. Landlords are still allowed to file for evictions and, when the moratorium is lifted, such cases can proceed.

That's what has many people worried — especially since experts say renters are more likely to have been affected by job losses. Between March 16 and April 3, the Texas sector with the most unemployment claims was the accommodation and food services industry, in which 66% of the workers are renters, according to a Texas A&M Real Estate Center analysis.

“We are very, very concerned that there will be a surge of evictions and a surge of people losing their eviction cases and unprecedented homelessness as a result,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union.

More than 1.5 million Texans remain out of work, based on the latest number of people filing unemployment claims. And Gov. Greg Abbott's slow reopening of the Texas economy isn't expected to create a swift recovery — or be financially worth it for many businesses. The economic downturn created by the need to stop the spread of the virus is going to leave countless Texas households scrambling to pay back-rent and fees after moratoriums lift in a state that so far hasn't created any sort of housing relief fund for its residents, even though some local governments have.

“For the first three weeks of our response to COVID, when we shut down the economy, industries with a high proportion of renter households were disproportionately affected,” said Wesley Miller, who conducted the Real Estate Center analysis.

Besides the statewide moratorium, the federal government has also halted evictions until Aug. 23, but only for properties that are covered by federally backed mortgages. Some counties and cities have enacted their own moratoriums, sometimes for longer periods and with extra provisions, like a grace period for tenants to pay back what they owe.

“The deadline comes in really fast, you know?” said Al Khlifat. “I never thought I’d be in this situation when me and everyone around me are basically on the edge of being homeless.”

Officials at the Texas Apartment Association, whose 12,000 members include around 7,500 property owners and operators, said they are unsure if there will be a sudden increase in evictions.

“I can’t predict what’s coming five minutes from now, much less five months from now,” said Chris Newton, executive vice president of the Texas Apartment Association. “But I do think it’s important that all the stakeholders are working together because this is where we are all in uncharted waters. We're going to have to figure out a way to manage this.”

Newton said association members have been advised to work out deals with residents and that evictions are a last resource for them.

“We estimate that our members probably waved tens of millions of dollars in rent and fees in the month of April,” Newton said. “Our first goal is always to keep people in their homes. It’s a lot easier for us than if we’re having to look at alternatives to that.”

Tenants with evictions on their rental records have a harder time finding new places to rent and can later run into trouble getting mortgages. But landlords also have to pay for legal fees when evicting, as well as the cost of having an apartment without tenants.

Newton said that the association applauds federal and local regulations that support renters, but members also want clear rules across the state.

“Today, we have mayor's orders, we have local ordinances, we have different court orders, we have a new federal law, plus you've got existing state and federal laws governing rental housing. So it's just a hot mess,” Newton said. “I think from our perspective, it would be far better if we just had one systematic approach.”

Advocates and experts said that extended moratoriums are needed and that billions in federal aid coming to Texas governments should be tapped as a source to aid renters in need. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will provide up to $11.2 billion to the state of Texas as a whole, including funds coming to the state, cities and counties.

“The federal government, I think, has done a decent job with the federal moratorium, but it only protects about 25% of renters in the country,” said Heather K. Way, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic. “But I think the state should take action to emulate those protections as a 120-day protection from eviction and cover late fees during that moratorium period.”

Only a few cities have announced programs to help renters financially. San Antonio officials announced a $23 million emergency housing assistance program, and as of Thursday, 4,737 applications have been approved. Dallas and Austin have also announced similar programs. In Houston, advocates are calling for Mayor Sylvester Turner to create a $100 million rental and utility assistance fund.

“Without financial assistance, for some tenants this is just postponing displacement,” Way said. “Many tenants are on what's called a financial cliff. The date that they're going to fall off a cliff gets pushed back, but they're still in a bind because they don't have the means to catch up.”

To escape that cliff, Al Khlifat is trying everything. She’s waiting for news from a temp agency. She's living with family in Alabama to see if finding a job is easier there. But even if she finds a job there or in Texas, she still fears that she’ll end up homeless.

“What will happen if we get to that point in the middle of May and they start opening everything back up, and people are scrambling to get back to their jobs? Even if I get a job, I’ll still have to wait for a waiting period for a paycheck,” she said. “I’m extremely concerned.”

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University Real Estate Center and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.