Houston rental assistance program enrollment suspended after 90 minutes

Jessica Willey Image
Thursday, May 14, 2020
At point, 30,000 people were on website seeking rent relief
At point, 30,000 people were on website seeking rent relief.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It didn't take long.

After less than two hours, Houston's rental assistance application process had to be suspended, according to the non-profit group BakerRipley.

The group was responsible for $15 million in relief funds that were available to applicants beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The program is designed to help Houston tenants who have fallen behind on rent due to COVID-19 hardships.

In the first hour of the application window, administrators had to temporarily halt the online process because there were 17,000 users attempting to sign up at the same time, according to the City of Houston Housing & Community Development Department.

"The pause is to help the site recover and reduce traffic on some pages and should be lifted now," HCDD administrators said in a statement on Twitter.

In less than an hour, nearly $1 million in applications had been received, according to the city.

To be eligible for up to $1,056 per month for April and May, renters must live within Houston city limits. They must be current on their leases through March 31, and unable to pay due to economic harm from COVID-19. Their landlords must have already signed up.

The program is designed to help about 8,000 families.

"Realistically, this is only going to help between eight and 13,000 people, and we're in a city of one million renters," said Zoe Middleton, the co-director of the Southeast region for Texas Housers, a non-profit housing advocacy group.

She recommends tenants, who have fallen behind and can't get relief through the city's program, to ask their landlords for payment plans.

"If your landlord agrees to your payment plan, that will act as an amendment to your lease. If you fall behind, you could still have an eviction filed on you or you could still receive what's called a 'notice to vacate,' but if you stay current on it and your signature and your landlord's signature is on it, you'll have the peace of mind that you'll be able to stay in your home during this pandemic and recession," Middleton said. "Morally, I think they should all be doing it."

One tenant who lives outside of Houston city limits said she is not eligible for the city's programs.

"I'm already two months behind. We're going into June. So then, that will be three months behind," said Stephanie James, who was laid off March 17. "I'm just stuck waiting," James said.

Harris County is working on its own $15 million dollar relief package for vulnerable families, which is in the final stages of approval, according to County Judge Lina Hidalgo's Office.