Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct a statement from Diane Yentel warning of a rise in evictions.
SPRING, Texas — Dionna Jackson, 40, sat on a long wooden bench nervously scrolling through old text messages on her phone while waiting for her eviction case to be called Monday. More than 87 people joined her in Harris County Judge Lincoln Goodwin’s packed courtroom.
“I’ve found a place for me and my children to stay,” said Jackson, who has three school-aged children. “I just need a few weeks for my income tax [refund] to come in.”
Jackson applied for the Texas Rent Relief Program in October when she first lost her job, but her application has not been processed. She found a new job that pays much less, but because she fell behind two months in rent, the late fees have increased her bill by more than $300 each month.
“I’m having to choose whether to pay rent or feed my children,” Jackson said. “I work 40 plus hours a week. I get paid, I just got paid Friday and all of it went to fix my car and pay for food. I have $27 left in my bank account right now. It’s been rough, but I just need a little more time to catch back up.”
Houston-area landlords filed for more than 5,400 evictions in January, at least 1,000 more than the average for this month pre-pandemic, a spike that housing advocates say will become a national trend as federal and state rental assistance runs out and renter protections expire.
Eviction cases have been on the rise in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, since federal renter protections were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in late August. More recently, filings shot up here after emergency rental assistance programs that have helped tens of thousands of families stay in their homes ran out of money, according to local administrators.
“We don't have enough money to help everybody,” said Joy Partain, a spokesperson for the nonprofit alliance running Houston’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. “That's the complete, honest and tragic truth.”
This month, the number of evictions in Texas’ largest city surpassed the monthly historical average for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Houston and surrounding Harris County had more eviction cases the week of Jan. 16 than any of the six states and 31 cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a research center.
Eviction filings in 11 major cities—including Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wis.; Tampa, Fla.; and Houston—significantly increased soon after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium expiration, according to a preliminary analysis published in December by the Eviction Lab.
Lab data shows eviction filings in Columbus were 21% higher in December than the average eviction filings for the same month in 2012, 2013 and 2015. The Columbus Urban League, an advocacy group administering the Emergency Rental Assistance Program there, stopped taking applications in November.
“Due to the enormous response, we are at the maximum number of applications for the funding we have available,” reads the league’s website.
Eviction filings in Milwaukee were 2% above average in December, compared with the average eviction filings for the same month between 2012-2016. The latest U.S. Treasury Department report from November shows the city had spent all its rental assistance.
In contrast, eviction filings in Tampa were down 24% compared with December filings between 2016-2019, but their Emergency Rental Assistance Program did not stop taking applications until Jan. 19.
Requests for comment from rental relief program administrators in Columbus and Milwaukee went unanswered. Tampa officials were not available before publication.
Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group that’s been tracking federal rental relief spending, warned that Houston and these cities are just the beginning of what’s to come. Low-income people across the United States have started to lose their homes at pre-pandemic levels and it’s only going to get worse, she predicted.
“All of these resources and protections worked to keep people stably housed as they were intended to do,” Yentel said. “Now, these resources are being depleted, those protections are expiring, and we are, sure enough, seeing increased evictions in the communities where that’s true.”
As of last week, according to the group, 53 emergency rental relief programs were on hold in 23 states and the District of Columbia and 18 such programs had been closed in Arkansas, California, Florida, Michigan and Texas. Some programs, such as those in California, have closed in order to centralize relief with a state-run program. But others, such as in Texas, have run out of money.
In August 2020, Yentel and other housing advocates predicted an eviction “tsunami” that threatened to leave up to 30 million people without a home.
But nationally, evictions have remained below average in most places. The tsunami never happened, Yentel said, because the federal government put in place a year-long eviction moratorium, provided stimulus checks, expanded monthly child tax credit payments and allocated $46 billion in emergency rental assistance.
Yentel’s group estimates about $19 billion had been spent nationwide as of Jan. 24.
In Houston and Harris County, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is administered by Catholic Charities, BakerRipley and The Alliance, three nonprofits that have long helped homeless and low-income people in the area.
This past week the nonprofits stopped accepting applications from anyone without an active eviction case and case number, Partain said, because they’re about to run out of funding. She suspects evictions in the area will continue to climb unless a significant amount of money is reallocated to the Houston and Harris County programs.
As of last week, the three nonprofits had spent more than $275 million of the $301 million total award allocated by the U.S. Treasury Department and helped some 69,000 families. They expect the rest of the money to be depleted in a few weeks.
Stephanie Graves, board treasurer of the Houston Apartment Association, owns a 15-unit property while also helping manage 1,600 units in the Houston area for the NSP Management Group. She said landlords have been patient, but now they know there is no more funding and can’t wait any longer.
“With rents going up, not enough housing, we can’t keep housing people that don’t pay when people that will pay their rent are looking for apartments and can’t find them because they are occupied by people that have not paid for months,” Grave said.
In almost every state and major city, rent is rising fast. The average price of rent increased 16% from January to December 2021 nationwide, according to rent cost data from the website ApartmentList.com analyzed by Lending Tree, an online mortgage broker.
Later this month, the nonprofits administering the local program in Houston and Harris County expect to get an additional $13 million for rental relief.
That money will come from the federal government’s first reallocation process, in which the U.S. Treasury is taking money from low-performing programs and giving it to high-performing ones. There will be a new round of reallocation every three months.
Partain said the nonprofit coalition requested an additional $250 million. “Thirteen million is not going to close that gap,” she said.
This leaves renters with nowhere else to turn for emergency relief, because the Texas Rent Relief Program stopped taking applications in November after committing 99% of the nearly $2 billion in relief it received from the Treasury. Treasury data shows the program has not been allocated any additional funds.
The Treasury is reallocating a total of $1.1 billion in emergency rental assistance funds nationwide. About 78% of the money was voluntarily reallocated within the same states, 19% was recaptured and reallocated to a different state, and 3% was recaptured and reallocated within the same state, according to an analysis of Treasury data by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A Stateline request to the Treasury for state level data remained pending when this story was published.
Eric Kwartler, an attorney and teaching fellow at South Texas College of Law, said he’s hoping Harris County gets more money after the second round of reallocation. Kwartler and four law students were at eviction court Monday as part of a county- and state-funded initiative that provides free legal aid to people facing eviction.
“The only option if we want to see evictions go down and prevent this tsunami from occurring in other parts of Texas is more money because that’s the best defense in eviction court, or legislative action,” he said.
Kwartler represented Jackson before the judge and was able to get her case dismissed because the landlord had not hand-delivered or mailed the eviction notice to the single mother’s two-bedroom apartment.
“Sometimes we get lucky,” he said after the hearing. “In a state like Texas where there’s no tenant protections, even getting someone one extra day before they get evicted is a win.”
A woman who would only identify herself as Crystal represented Jackson’s landlord, and said she’d be filing for eviction again after the hearing. She also said the landlord was not willing to participate in the rental assistance program anymore because Jackson had been unresponsive and unwilling to pay even a fraction of what she owed.
“The pandemic has been going on for how long?” Crystal said outside the courtroom. “People who are only relying on the Emergency Rental Assistance Program need to know that the money is running out, and landlords aren’t going to take a chance and just keep waiting to see if there’s more money coming.”