The month of September closed with more new eviction filings than Dallas County has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers aren’t as bad as many housing advocates feared when a federal ban on evictions came to an end in August, although the line on this chart published by the Child Poverty Action Lab is heading in the wrong direction. Compare the 2,606 eviction filings in Dallas County in September to the 2,139 in August or to the 1,959 in July.
Every eviction is a tragedy. Still, the current rate remains well below the staggering high levels of pre-pandemic evictions: In January 2020, more than 4,000 eviction cases were filed in Dallas County. Many experts in metro areas across the country are now asking a version of the same question: With the federal moratorium done, where’s the eviction wave we worried about?
One possibility is that it’s still coming, if it’s not already starting to hit.
“We certainly are getting a lot more calls, and are kind of struggling just to staff them,” says Mark Melton, part of a group of attorneys working pro bono to represent tenants facing evictions.
Another possibility is that the eviction bans, both federal and local, had a muted effect in Texas in the first place. There are too many stories of families losing their homes over the last 18 months, moratoriums be damned. There are also those cases that eviction filings can’t measure, like the non-renewal of leases and involuntary moves, the informal evictions where a tenant sees the writing on the wall and moves before the actual notice shows up on their door.
But what’s perhaps made the real difference in keeping evictions (relatively) low during the pandemic has been the millions of dollars in federal rent relief being distributed by local and state governments as part of the country’s broader response to COVID-19.
Landlords who can’t collect rent are taking a financial hit. Evicting a tenant is expensive and a pain in the neck, and nobody really wants to be the bad guy anyway. It better suits the landlord and their wallet to work with the tenant to apply for money from the government. To be patient.
“You’re starting to see that patience run out,” Melton says. “Once the rent assistance money runs out, I think that’s when you’re going to see the big wave.”
Dallas has historically had little-to-nothing to offer in the way of rent assistance. What it did have was dedicated largely to homelessness prevention, to the most extreme cases of poverty. Then March 2020 arrived. Among many other things that were—to use the most popular word of the COVID era—unprecedented, the city soon found it had the money to ramp up, almost from scratch, a rental assistance program.
The city originally received more than $40 million from the federal government for emergency rental assistance. About $28 million of it had been spent through September, with the vast majority of the rest already committed, says Jessica Galleshaw, director of Dallas’ Office of Community Care.
Dallas has a little more than $1 million left from $3.3 million in Texas Rental Assistance program funds, and in June received another $50 million in federal rent relief funds, which the city has until 2025 to spend.
To get the money in the right hands, the city has worked with local nonprofits, including the United Way, and with the Dallas Housing Authority, which had spent all of its eligible funds by September. Two city departments, Galleshaw’s office of community care and the office of equity and inclusion, partner to get the word out. That’s one key thing: Making sure tenants and landlords know that help is out there.
“In addition to the online application, [the city] has worked directly with landlords [at] more than 20 local apartment complexes to deliver assistance to hundreds of clients in arrears, and has also hosted several on site events and complexes and other community sites in highly impacted areas,” Galleshaw says.
It can take a few weeks to process an application and issue payment, Galleshaw says, although “there are some protections for clients facing eviction if they can show they have applied for rental assistance and are awaiting processing.” She says the city is always looking for ways to speed up delivery.
That’s another key to making sure rent relief works: writing the check before the date in eviction court.
Finance attorney Jake Torres volunteers with a legal clinic in East Dallas, which lately has been representing tenants in danger of being evicted. Last month, he represented a woman who owed her landlord $1,750. His client had applied for rent relief through the city. But the landlord moved quickly, and the city moved slowly, Torres says.
He negotiated a couple extensions. Weeks passed. The case worker told Torres, repeatedly, that it was still processing. “I was calling, the landlord was calling, the tenant was calling,” Torres says. Torres reached out to the City Council member whose district his client lived in. The landlord ran out of patience. Torres’ client got an eviction notice.
Finally, before the landlord could retake possession of the apartment, the checks showed up, Torres says. His client has her back rent and the next four months’ rent paid. It was a close call.
“It was a really frustrating process because we’ve got this program that, by definition, has got to move quickly,” he says. “And it was almost the case that she was evicted.”
If landlords and tenants can agree on anything, it’s that rent relief should be quickly distributed to the people who need it.
“We’ve had members that have bent over backward to try to keep their residents housed for the last 18 months,” says Jason Simon, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas. “Really, no other industry has been asked to go without. You can’t walk into the grocery store and walk out the door without paying. We’ve been told to ‘Wait, wait, wait, keep waiting, keep on waiting for these moratoria to expire.’ Meanwhile, we’ve got property taxes to pay, we’ve got insurance to pay, we’ve got payroll to meet, we’ve got upkeep on our properties.”
Simon says landlords are often as frustrated as tenants by the rental aid application process, if occasionally for different reasons. Much of the process requires landlords and tenants to cooperate. Simon is suspicious that some tenants may be taking advantage of past moratoria—or of a city ordinance, passed in April, that delays evictions if a tenant can demonstrate they’re under financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had some instances where, frankly, you’ve got residents that are not applying, for whatever reason, refusing to communicate,” Simon says. “We’ve heard of some situations where we’ve got people that can afford the rent and are just simply refusing to do so.”
Whatever the case may be, Simon says policy makers need to focus on distributing rental aid, rather than banning evictions.
It’s a simple enough approach to preventing evictions. Dallas has recently put its weight behind a plan to curb homelessness by putting people in homes. The best way to keep people from losing their homes in the first place might be paying their rent. It’s kept many people off the street during an unprecedented public health crisis.
“We obviously benefited from enormous amounts of rent relief that have come down through the federal programs,” says Ashley Flores, a senior director at the Child Poverty Action Lab. But what comes after the federal money is spent?
“That’s something we’ll need to think about it, as a city and as a county,” Flores says. “We know eviction has an enormous impact on families, on tenants. It’s not just about being displaced from your housing. It also impacts employment and mental health. For students, if they’re switching schools, it has a huge negative impact on their academic achievement. My hope is that this might spur some interest in expanding, post-COVID: rent relief that’s available, legal counsel for tenants facing eviction, some of those supports that can help tenants stay housed.”
Priscylla Bento, policy manager for the city’s Office of Equity and Conclusion, says the pandemic has spotlighted a housing crisis that was already brewing. Evictions, like all of Dallas’ chronic problems, follow a familiar map of inequality.
“It’s hard to not recognize the impact it has, especially how it negatively impacts our communities in need, our racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty,” Bento says.
The reality of housing instability is stark. Many people in North Texas face a real and near-constant threat of losing their homes. It doesn’t have to be that way. The pandemic has changed many things, including housing, Bento says.
“I think we’re going to be seeing policy changes and shifts to recognize those changes and ensure our residents have the opportunity to be fruitful in a quality living situation and not consistently facing threats of eviction.”