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Texas will spend $171 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help renters avoid evictions

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An apartment complex near downtown Waco in 2019. Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced he was dedicating $171 million in federal coronavirus relief money to helping renters avoid evictions. Credit: Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

Texas is using $171 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide financial and legal aid to renters facing eviction, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday.

The vast majority of that money — $167 million — will go toward rental assistance. Another $4.2 million will be used to fund legal services for Texans.

Abbott's office also said in a press release that the state is creating the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which will coordinate state agencies, local governments and nonprofits to help renters avoid evictions and catch up with missed rent payments.

It wasn't immediately clear how the money would be divvied up or how Texans could seek assistance.

"The Texas Eviction Diversion Program is crucial to our state's response to COVID-19, and it will help many families recover from the impact of the pandemic without the looming threat of eviction," Abbott said in the release. "This innovative partnership, coupled with the renters assistance provided through CARES Act funding, will strengthen our economic recovery efforts and provide a lifeline to renters and property owners alike."

Since the pandemic began in March, more than 3.5 million Texans have filed for unemployment and staying current on rent has become a main concern of Texans who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut. According to a survey done in late August by the U.S. Census Bureau, 36.8% of Texans said they were somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. Data from the Princeton based research center The Eviction Lab show that eviction filings have increased in some of Texas largest cities since a statewide moratorium ended in mid May.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month announced a new nationwide eviction moratorium, that will last until Dec. 31.

Since then, the Texas Supreme Court ordered every eviction citation to include information about the moratorium, as well as the form that tenants are required to fill to seek protection from being evicted.

Christina Rosales, deputy director of the advocacy organization Texas Housers, said that Abbott's new program was "unprecedented" and a "good start," but more needs to be done to avoid an increase in evictions in January, when the CDC moratorium expires.

"In Texas, tenants can be evicted because of non payment of rent. The thing that will keep them housed is rent assistance," Rosales said. "Legal assistance, right to counsel and eviction diversion will help manage the crisis, but if we want to steer our way out of the crisis, we will need more rental relief."

Similar rent assistance programs have been created by Texas' most populated cities and counties, mostly using CARES Act funding, too. These have experienced high levels of demand. San Antonio offered residents $50.3 million for rent and legal assistance, which city officials expected to be tapped by the end of this month, according to KSAT. In Houston, the first round of a $15 million rental assistance program was drained in 90 minutes. Since then, the city announced a new $19 million program.