Rent-assistance money still available as El Paso eviction cases increase in some courts

Written by MLHA Team

October 9, 2021

An El Paso rent-assistance program is getting an infusion of more federal money from the city of El Paso as eviction petition filings are increasing in some El Paso courts.

The uptick in eviction cases began occurring even before a federal eviction moratorium, tied to COVID-19 economic problems, ended in late August, data show.

Another reason eviction cases may have started increasing this summer is because the Texas Supreme Court on March 31 no longer required Texas courts to stop eviction proceedings tied to the federal moratorium.

Texas courts were then advised it was a landlord’s decision on whether an eviction case affected by the moratorium could proceed, and some landlords chose to do so, said Josh Herrera, Precinct 3 justice of the peace. El Paso County’s eight justice of the peace courts handle eviction cases.

The EP Rent Help program expects to exhaust its remaining $1.35 million available for qualified tenants inside city limits by the end of September, said Mica Short, vice president of development for the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, which administers the program.

The program had $6.56 million remaining as of Aug. 4, including $3.94 million for city residents, new Paso del Norte Foundation data show. Short had reported at an Aug. 6 press conference the program had $5.3 million remaining at that time, including $2.6 million for city residents. She had subtracted money for applications approved but not yet paid, she said.

It still has more than $2 million available for county residents outside El Paso city limits because applications have been slow to come in from the county despite outreach efforts, Short said.

The city plans to provide the program another $2.5 million in federal money to “assure no gap in available assistance for El Pasoans,” and is working on providing another $8 million in federal money in coming months, Nicole Ferrini, director of the city Community and Human Development Department said in an email.

The state-operated Texas Rent Relief Program also has millions of dollars in rent assistance available to qualified applicants statewide. Tenants can get money from only one of the programs.

Both programs have income limits and require that tenants’ ability to pay rent has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

EP Rent Help has seen an increase in demand for rent assistance since the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26 ended a federal eviction moratorium, said Anna Apodaca, the program’s manager.

Eviction petition filings have started to increase in some El Paso justice of the peace courts, which handle eviction petitions. 

At the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace court, covering part of Northeast El Paso, the number of eviction cases filed through Sept. 20 skyrocketed to 115 — the most the court has seen since July 2019, when it had 115 case filings for that entire month, court data show.

It had a total of 312 eviction cases filed from June through Sept. 20, which is near the 317 filed for those same months in 2019, prior to the pandemic, data show.

The court historically has the most eviction filings among the county’s seven justice of the peace courts, said Brian Haggerty, the precinct’s judge. That’s because there are a lot of rentals in the precinct, especially between Hondo Pass Drive and Dyer Street, he said.

“I have 43 cases scheduled for Thursday (Sept. 30),” Haggerty said. “I would assume we will get more” in coming weeks, he said.

At the Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace court, which covers an area from Downtown to Cielo Vista, Judge Herrera said, “I have 12 slots every Thursday for eviction hearings, and they’ve been filling up the last few months. We’ve seen an increase since July.”

The JP3 court had 54 eviction cases filed in August, which was at pre-pandemic levels. However, that dropped to 27 cases through Sept. 23. Herrera said the number of cases filed fluctuate.

Eviction cases are at a steady flow in other JP courts. However, data provided by four other JP courts did not show big increases in eviction petition filings in recent months.

Not all the cases filed in JP courts end in actual evictions. 

Herrera and Haggerty said they ask landlords and tenants if they want to take part in rent assistance programs. Some landlords agree, and others want to proceed with an eviction, the judges said.

In the first five of 12 eviction cases heard virtually in Herrera’s court Sept. 23 and observed by the El Paso Times, two cases were dismissed because tenants were going to receive EP Rent Help assistance, and another was delayed while the tenant completed the EP Rent Help application process. One landlord’s representative refused to consider rent assistance programs, and the eviction in that case was approved.

More: El Paso labor shortage persists as workers factor in wages, COVID-19 fears, other concerns

Under Texas Supreme Court guidelines, Texas judges are supposed to ask the landlord if he or she would agree to using the Texas Eviction Diversion program, another program providing rent assistance for qualified tenants, Herrera said. He also asks if the EP Rent Help program would be a possibility, he said. Both the landlord and tenant need to agree to use rent assistance programs in order for the eviction process to be delayed or stopped, he said. 

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit group helping low-income people with legal problems, Sept. 1 began a program to go into justice of the peace courts in several counties along the U.S.-Mexico border to help mediate tensions between tenants and landlords and connect tenants to rent assistance programs, said Lizbeth Parra Davila, a TRLA lawyer in San Antonio heading the Tenant Eviction Relief Project.

So far, it’s only in Haggerty’s court in El Paso, but it’s reaching out to the other El Paso justices of the peace, she said.

“Part of the reason we started this is because the federal moratorium ended,” leaving many tenants with no protection against evictions, she said. “There’s a huge need and a lot of rent assistance is unused; the community may not be aware of the programs.”

It provides guidance on applying for money from the state’s Texas Rent Relief Program and through the EP Rent Help program in El Paso, she said.

EP Rent Help received $13.08 million in federal funding this year from the city and county. Of that amount, $11.8 million was available for rental assistance, and $1.28 million allocated for program administration costs.

It allocated $8.02 million to 2,095 applicants from January through Sept. 21, including  $280,000 to 100 applicants in El Paso County, Paso del Norte Foundation data show.

It had 1,420 applications approved by Sept. 21, but rent allocations not yet paid.

More: Young developers launch new firm with $35M apartment, retail complex in East El Paso

The Texas Rent Relief Program, administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, has allocated $7.9 million in rent and utility payment assistance to 1,677 applicants in El Paso County through Sept. 24, the program’s website shows. Another $613,312 in rent assistance was allocated to 101 applicants in El Paso County for the Texas Eviction Diversion Program.

The  state program still has more than $366 million available statewide, its website shows. It also has another $1 billion in federal money available for the program when the current money runs out, a state official has said.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421; vkolenc@elpasotimes.com@vickolenc on Twitter.

Two programs have millions of dollars in federal money available to help tenants struggling to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

EP Rent Help: Apply online at eprenthelp.org, or call 877-594-7276.

Texas Rent Relief Program: Apply online at texasrentrelief.com, or call 833-989-7368.

Both programs require an annual income of 80% or lower of area median income, which ranges from $34,100 annually for a single person to $48,700 for a family of four.

Tenants’ ability to pay rent must have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Payments of up to 12 months past-due rent and up to three months future rent available.

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