Nearly one-quarter of Houston-area renters couldn’t make their July payment


As moratoriums on evictions expire and bonus unemployment benefits run out, many in Houston and across Texas face increasing uncertainty about their ability to pay for a place to live.

photo illustration for renter uncertainty

Photo by Morning Brew / Unsplash

As moratoriums on evictions expire and bonus unemployment benefits run out, many in Houston and across Texas face increasing uncertainty about their ability to pay for a place to live.

As Kriston Capps of CityLab reported on Friday, an estimated 27% of adults in the U.S. were not able to afford their rent or mortgage payment for July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest weekly Household Pulse Survey. More than one-third (34%) of U.S. adults reported having little or no confidence they would be able to pay their rent in August, which Capps cites as a “stark measure of the ongoing economic devastation for households stretched to the brink by coronavirus pandemic.”

This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.

Many Sun Belt states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, were home to the highest percentage of respondents who missed July rent or mortgage payments and were uncertain about their ability to pay their rent or mortgage for August. Almost 40% of Texas renters said they weren’t sure they could pay their August rent or were certain that they couldn’t.

In Texas, 35% of respondents said they were unable to make the rent or mortgage payment in July and had little to no confidence in doing so for August. That increased to 43% in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area and 47% in the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metro area.

The survey is based on data collected between July 16–July 21. During July, jobless claims, along with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations, were on the rise in Texas. Though employers added 1.8 million jobs in July nationwide, according to the latest report from the Department of Labor, the $600 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits from the CARES stimulus package ended on July 31, the same day the federal moratorium on evictions expired.

Without that extra $600 a week, many renters and homeowners are expected to move from financial strain to economic precarity.

Results of the survey show a higher percentage of Hispanic and Black renters in Texas — 33% and 25%, respectively — weren’t able to pay rent in July, compared to 11% of white renters. In the Houston metro area, the disproportions were greater: 41% of Hispanic renters, 29% of Black renters and 3% of white renters couldn’t make rent. Statewide, almost half (49%) of Hispanic, 45% of Black and 24% of white respondents had little or no confidence they could afford rent in August. In Houston, 50% of Hispanic renters said they had little or no certainty they can afford rent, while 37% of Black renters and 31% of white renters responded the same way.

While the Household Pulse Survey is a valuable and timely tool in assessing the economic impact of the pandemic in America, researchers at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies have pointed out that the estimates provided by the Census Bureau are for adults, not households. Estimates for households, Capps notes, likely would be slightly different and more accurate.

Last week, the Houston City Council and Mayor Sylvester Turner approved a $20 million rent-relief package to assist Houstonians unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Funding includes a second $15 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), as well as $5 million from private donors. The first round of $15 million in rental assistance was made available by the city in May. Because of high demand, that funding ran out in 90 minutes. This time, Turner says, the assistance won’t be given on a “first come, first served” basis. Instead, applicants who need the help the most will be identified by the city, according to the Texas Tribune.

The Harris County Commissioners Court added an additional $10 million to the county’s rental assistance program on July 29.

“I want to stress that there is no perfect formula, and we know there are Houstonians with a lot of needs as a result of the pandemic,” Turner said of the plan after it was approved by the City Council. “This program will provide relief to thousands of families. If you are at the lowest level, and you are not able to pay rent, pretty much the only place left is on the street. So, we want to make sure people don’t find themselves forced out of their homes and on the street.”

To qualify for assistance, renters must live in Houston and be behind on rent for August or earlier months as a result of economic challenges caused by COVID-19. A no-eviction rule is attached to any funding landlords receive from the program. It stipulates that they waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to setting up payment plans for renters who are behind, and forego evictions through the end of September. The rule would apply to all tenants, even if a landlord accepts funds for only one resident.

For tenant rights advocates, the no-eviction rule doesn’t go far enough, calling for a moratorium on evictions instead. The day before he announced the second rent assistance program, Turner declined to put a grace period ordinance written by the Housing Stability Task Force up for a City Council vote. Officials in Austin placed a moratorium on evictions through September. A freeze on evictions in Dallas County ended Aug. 5; however, seven of the 10 justices of the peace have agreed to postpone eviction proceedings until Aug. 24, according to the Dallas Morning News.

In nonbinding legal guidance released on Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that local governments could not stop or delay evictions, stating that attempts to do so amounted to rewriting state law.

“Rental assistance will only reach so many people, a grace period could protect countless more,” said Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas co-director at Texas Housers and a member of the city-county Housing Stability Task Force, in response to Turner’s decision. “We remain disappointed that the best practice of a grace period ordinance, unanimously recommended by the Housing Stability Task Force, has still not been brought before the council. The mayor is convinced that he can simply encourage landlords to not evict people during a pandemic without passing policy, but corporate interests don’t magically hold themselves accountable.”

In addition to the $15 million in funding from the CARES Act, $5 million more in rent assistance is being provided by the Houston Endowment, which is giving $2 million, and gifts of $1 million each from the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, the Kinder Foundation and Janice McNair, owner and co-founder of the Houston Texans.



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