HOUSTON — More than 300,000 Texans were helped during the pandemic by the state’s $1.9 billion rental relief program. Even though it had a slow start, the Texas Rent Relief Program was one of the top performing programs in the country when it ran out of money and stopped taking applications in November, according to U.S. Treasury Department data.
But in the rush to get relief money to renters in need, the Texas program distributed millions of dollars in double or fraudulent payments, according to an emailed statement from state officials.
Stephanie Graves, a Houston area landlord, property manager and apartment association board member, told Stateline she has received about two dozen notices from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs trying to claw back the money the Texas Rent Relief Program paid to her company on behalf of tenants.
She said in one instance, a tenant received $17,000 in double payments, which her company had applied as credit with approval from the Texas Rent Relief Program. But later the state backtracked and asked for a refund.
The properties she helps manage have evicted at least eight tenants in recent months because the state recaptured some of the rent relief money they received. She said the Houston Apartment Association, where she’s president-elect, has reached out to state officials to find out why this problem is occurring and to see whether there are other options to keep tenants housed.
In January, evictions rose to pre-pandemic levels here. Graves thinks the recapturing of funds could have something to do with it.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which administers the Texas Rent Relief Program, wrote in an email to Stateline that, as of Jan. 26, it had recaptured approximately $10.6 million from applicants.
When the department identifies a duplicate or payment made in error, it sends a recapture notice with information detailing the reason that benefit has been deemed ineligible to tenants and landlords. The notice also includes instructions for returning the funds and a phone number tenants and landlords can call with questions, according to the email.
But Graves said one of her tenants reported her to the Better Business Bureau, arguing that her company had stolen the money that was recaptured and sent back to the Texas Rent Relief Program.
“I don’t know if they are telling tenants what’s going on,” Graves said. “But we didn’t have a choice, we tried talking to the state and asked if we could find a way to keep the funds, but they said no.”
Texas officials say they are following federal rules and that they must seek to take back payments when a tenant or landlord mistakenly received assistance from both the Texas Rent Relief Program and a locally run Emergency Rental Assistance Program for the same timeframe. They also must seek to recapture money in cases where an application included misleading or fraudulent information or the assistance provided was not used for the intended purpose.
The department said it will be using the recaptured funds to benefit other renters in trouble who are eligible for the help.