HOUSTON - In a shocker in a Harris County courtroom Tuesday, many landlords turned down six months of rental assistance from the new Texas Eviction Diversion program.
The state allocated $221 million from the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act to help keep delinquent tenants in their homes after millions of workers lost their jobs in the pandemic.
Many landlords say this rental assistance comes too late after they've already had to wait months for a court date without receiving rent.
The result: Families are still being evicted. "Ummm," sighed tenant attorney Jonna Treble with Lone Star Legal Aid. "I'm really not sure what's going on, except for maybe they're lacking information."
"I think a lot of landlords are a little reticent because they didn't understand," reacted Judge David Patronella of Harris County Court, Precinct One, Place 2. "Under the new program, what a landlord agrees to do is accept the rent and agree to forbear on the eviction.
But it doesn't preclude them from dealing with other tenants in the properties," said Patronella.
"This program should be seen as an opportunity to get your rent and keep a tenant and forego the difficult choice of having somebody evicted," Patronella said.
If tenants and landlords both agree to participate in the Texas Eviction Diversion program, they get up to six months of rental assistance in a lump sum payment and the eviction is wiped off the tenant's record.
Tenants must be below 200% of the poverty level to qualify. Justices of the Peace can offer the program when tenants and landlords appear in court for eviction hearings.
Attorney Howard Bookstaff, General Counsel for the Houston Apartment Association, says that's too late in the process because landlords are behind on their property mortgages and bills.
"The parties can't participate until they go to court. By that time it's going to be one, maybe two months more delinquency than the initial delinquency that caused the eviction in the first place," explained Bookstaff.
Bookstaff also says the nationwide CDC eviction moratorium in effect until December 31st caused some tenants to not even try to pay rent or communicate with their landlords.
"Just ignored the obligation to pay rent, ignored the landlords' efforts to enter into payment plans, ignored the government assistance that have already been made available to a number of residents," said Bookstaff.
Treble says when tenants hear landlords reject the program in court, their reaction is "hopelessness and defeat. It's very overwhelming to realize there's help and it's right there, you just have to take it."
Harris County is one of a few counties across the state where the program is being implemented first.
Treble says landlords in Montgomery County were more receptive. Bookstaff says landlords hope the program is revised to provide rental assistance earlier than going to court before it's rolled out statewide.
Tenants and landlords can apply for the Texas Eviction Diversion program through Gulf Coast Community Services Association.