HOUSTON, Texas -- It's been a rough year for Elsa Ramírez.
The Houston woman lost the financial and emotional support of her husband, who was deported. She was infected with COVID-19, forcing her to isolate for two weeks and lose hours as a seamstress.
But despite falling behind on rent, she and her three kids have managed to stay housed in her two-bedroom apartment thanks to a federal eviction moratorium. With that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive about to end when 2020 does, though, Texans like Ramírez are again facing a dire cliff. Without relatives or friends in Houston to stay with, Ramírez has no plan for where she'll go if she loses her apartment.
"I owe $800 and I already got a paper from the landlord where they tell me that I can stay until Dec. 31, but I will be evicted after that if I don't pay," she said.
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The moratorium halted evictions for tenants who have tried to get rental assistance, among other requirements. Since September, it has limited evictions in a period when coronavirus infections are rising and unemployment remains high. But advocates are concerned that the protections will end while many are still struggling to make ends meet.
According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 1.7 million households in Texas have little to no confidence that they can afford next month's rent. People of color, like Ramírez, are disproportionately affected. While 55% of white Texans say that they are highly confident in being able to pay rent, only 21% of Black Texans and 14% of Hispanic Texans say the same.
Congress is working on a new stimulus bill that would include an extension of the moratorium, according to The Washington Post, but it would only be for one extra month and it remains unclear if there will be enough support for the measure.
"To be honest, we are terrified of what Jan. 1 is going to look like," said Christina Rosales, deputy director of the advocacy organization Texas Housers, who pointed out analysis from the National Low Income Housing Coalition that estimates more than 600,000 households are at risk of eviction because of the pandemic. "I don't know how the state is going to manage that kind of crisis."
Texas created the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which is still in the pilot stage in 19 counties. According to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, it will be expanded to 30 communities in mid-January and statewide in late spring.
"I feel like all the programs are just playing catch-up," said El Paso County Justice of the Peace Stephanie Frietze, who presides over eviction cases. "Even the state is just playing catch-up. We are not ahead of the game. ... So what's going to happen in January? We're going to have a lot of people that are going to end up being evicted."
Since the pandemic began in March, local, state and federal officials created a patchwork of assistance programs and protections that have kept evictions low compared with previous years. As business shutdowns and continued surges of the virus pushed millions out of work, tenants have been using their stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and assistance from nonprofits and local governments to stay afloat.
The federal moratorium doesn't prevent all evictions. Some Texas authorities have been more aggressive in limiting evictions than others. In Travis County, local officials have decided to stop eviction hearings. In comparison, Harris County landlords have filed more than 5,500 evictions since Oct. 1. Early in the pandemic, the county halted evictions, but it resumed them in August.
Advocates think that the number of evictions filed will increase as soon as the federal moratorium ends. The moratorium didn't erase debts, and rent assistance programs have been insufficient or difficult to access.
"I applied for the first round of rental assistance and I didn't get it," Ramírez said. "For the second round, I'm still waiting. I don't believe I'm going to get help."
This has forced her to be late on bills and use any resource to keep her family fed. During the two weeks that she was isolated with COVID-19, she couldn't pay her cellphone or her electricity bill. Friends had to leave food at her doorstep. She lived off that and canned goods that she got from food banks before getting sick.
Cate Puckett, a mother of a 6-year-old in Houston, also filed the paperwork to avoid an eviction after her job stopped paying her in August. She has received financial help, but she said it won't be enough to be up to date by January. The moratorium stopped eviction cases, but tenants still had to pay rent, including any extra fees if they were late.
"My landlords have been charging me $15 dollars a day for late fees since Sept. 1. My current amount owed is $4,891.06, and that is including the rental assistance that I got," Puckett said. "I was able to get help from Catholic Charities and qualify for rent assistance, and all that money went to them."
To get the state's rental assistance, landlords have to agree in front of a justice of the peace that they will waive late fees and other penalties for the tenant.
"The barrier is that they're not willing to do away with those late fees, and sometimes the defendant does not qualify financially for the program," said Frietze, the El Paso justice of the peace.
But people who live where the state program is already available are still trying to get help.
"The volume is picking up and people are using it. It's allowing people who are behind on rent to be able to stay in their homes and for landlords to get paid the rent that they're due, too," said David Slayton, administrative director of the Office of Courts Administration, one of the agencies involved in the program.
Frietze noted that the pandemic has also been tough for landlords, and she's seen that in her court, too.
"I have had people come in here that have worked hard all their life to have rental property, are now retired and rely on that rent as part of their income. That's how they pay their taxes," she said.
David Mintz, vice president of government affairs at the Texas Apartment Association, agreed and said that an extension of the CDC moratorium won't be enough in the long term.
"Whether it's the CDC order or anything else, what is occurring is essentially just kicking the can down the road, creating a situation where you may be having people incurring debt that they will never be able to get out of," Mintz said. "We need to make sure that we get rental assistance programs out there that are working and helping get people the funds to be able to pay their rent and meet their obligations."
Mintz, along with housing and homeless advocates, is hoping that Congress passes a new stimulus package with benefits for tenants in need.
If there's no extension of the moratorium and no new federal aid, the effect on the eviction rates might be slow at the start. Judges will have to go through a backlog of pending cases and new filings. Homeless service providers said that it might be a difficult winter for them.
"With the moratorium and everything in place, we've been able to stem the tides and use the dollars as effectively as we can. But if there is a wave of evictions, all bets are off at that point," said Carl Falconer, CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit that coordinates homelessness efforts in the city. "I'm hopeful that we won't let that happen in our communities, but at this point we are pretty much stretched to the limit on what we could do as a system if everything stays the same."
Ramírez and Puckett both said that they are trying hard to get the money in time. Ramírez has thought about getting a night job, but she doesn't have anyone to take care of her children. Right now, with what she makes, she's left with only $120 a month for all her family needs after paying rent. Saving to pay what she owes to her landlord is impossible.
And for Puckett, the challenge will be even harder, given the late fees and the amount she owes.
"Even if the eviction process starts, I know that I have some time," she said. "I'm actively looking for work. I don't have a choice, I have to push through this and find a way, find any option possible so that my child is not homeless."
The video above is from a previous story.
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