Even With Billions In Federal Aid For Rent Relief, Some Texans Are Losing Their Homes
Mona Ogas fell through the cracks.
Ogas was laid off right as the pandemic hit. She'd spent a career working on the business side of health care, and had a good professional network. She’d been laid off before, and always found another job.
Then, the shutdown happened.
“As a week turned into another week and turned into another week, it just became really scary,” Ogas said.
Ogas has spent countless hours over the past year navigating the unemployment system, searching for jobs and networking.
She cut back on household expenses, stopped going out to eat, and hasn’t gotten a haircut or a manicure in a year. That’s tough for a woman trying to make a good impression at job interviews, she said.
Ogas also started driving for InstaCart and Uber Eats. Between the extra cash from gig work and unemployment payments, she’s been living on less than half of her pre-pandemic income.
“The stress of it has affected my physical health. It’s affected my mental health. It’s affected my relationships,” she said. “I’ve struggled with embarrassment and shame, wondering how this can be happening. I’m 57 years old and I’ve been working my whole life.”
Looking For Help
By the end of 2020, Ogas was caught up on rent, but her savings were exhausted.
She missed her January rent payment. She missed rent in February, too, but she knew Congress had approved billions of dollars in rental assistance. She told her landlord she’d apply as soon as she could.
On Feb.15, in the middle of the massive winter storm, applications for the Texas Rent Relief program opened.
On Feb.16, Ogas applied. It took hours to upload all of the required documents and complete the application on her smartphone. She’d cancelled her home internet service to save money.
Then, crickets. Weeks went by with no indication her application was being reviewed.
March 1 came and went, and she was, again, unable to pay rent.
“The landlord starts sending me emails saying do you have any updates? Do you have any updates? Do you have any updates?” she said.
What Mona Ogas didn’t know was that behind the scenes, the Texas Rent Relief program was hamstrung by software problems and other issues. The program could barely process applications, leaving tenants in limbo.
The contractor hired by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to run the program eventually had to switch over to an entirely new software system to handle applications.
Three weeks after she applied, a letter arrived notifying Ogas that her landlord had decided to evict her.
At the eviction hearing, she told the judge that she should be protected by the federal eviction moratorium, but it didn’t help. The judge ruled in favor of the landlord.
“I was just in shock,” she said.
She scoured the internet looking for something — anything — that could help her stay in her home. She considered an appeal, but couldn’t afford a lawyer, and didn’t qualify for free legal aid. Eventually, a friend convinced her that she needed to start packing. She got a storage unit and moved in with a friend.
She turned in her keys, and walked away.
“It was devastating. It was embarrassing. It was terrifying,” she said.
A few days after she moved out, Ogas got an email from the Texas Rent Relief program. It said she’d been approved for more than $6,000 in rental and utility assistance.
“I called and they said, ‘Congratulations, you got approved!” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, lets hold the congratulations, because I’ve been evicted.’”
A few days later she was told that the money had already gone out to her landlord. The money was tied to the apartment, she was told. Because she was no longer living there, she was no longer eligible for the funds.
The Lodge at River Park is currently managed by Harbor Group Management Co,, which is part of Harbor Group International. That company bought The Lodge at River Park and 35 other apartment complexes in 2020 from Aragon Holdings.
“While we never want to see any resident lose their apartment, we worked within the court system and with this resident to avoid eviction. Ultimately, the court system processed and approved the eviction,” said Kathleen Denison, a manager for Harbor Group Management.
Christina Rosales from the housing advocacy group Texas Housers said the company can’t legally take the money and evict a tenant because it violates the rules of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“I would hope that they will be prosecuted because that is really bad behavior, not to mention that is also a crime,” Rosales said.
Texas Housers has heard from others who were evicted while waiting on help from the rent relief program, Rosales said, and she worries that there are even more who we’ll never know about.
Rosales wants the state to institute a full-scale eviction moratorium while the rental assistance is being disbursed, and do better at connecting people impacted by the pandemic with assistance.
“The state has massively failed people like Mona,” she said. “I am hopeful that the state will learn from all these mistakes, that this program will be effective in helping people stay housed. But the collateral damage is people are being evicted right now and we have to deal with that.”
Bobby Wilkinson, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said his department is looking into Ogas’ landlord. But at this point, the rent relief program can’t give her any money.
“I understand her frustration,” Wilkinson said. “It just didn’t get there in time for her eviction. That’s terrible. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”
Fixing Rent Relief
The program has made significant improvements in its ability to process applications, according to Wilkinson.
The department has added 800 staff members to process applications, streamlined the application process and relaxed strict documentation requirements that made completing applications challenging.
By late April, more than 6,000 households had gotten assistance through the Texas Rent Relief program, totaling nearly $44 million in rental and utility assistance. The program had about 40,000 applications pending.
Renters whose landlords have commenced formal eviction proceedings are now moved to an expedited review process, Wilkinson said. He suggests that renters who have applied and are facing eviction should call the program to update their application.
“I would really want to stress to landlords: Don’t evict. Once [a tenant] is gone, you can’t get the money," he said. "This is not a ‘repay the landlord after someone moves out’ program. This is a ‘keep someone in their homes’ program.”
As for Mona Ogas, she's reached out to nearly every public official she can think of: the governor, the president, her state lawmaker. She’s sent dozens of emails and spent hours on the phone trying to find help.
“No matter how much support I had, no matter how many people love me, no matter how much of all of that, at the end of the day I felt very alone, she said.
The Texas Rent Relief program is still accepting applications for rental and utility assistance online at TexasRentRelief.com
Large cities and counties also received money from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program and are accepting applications for rental and utility assistance.
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.
Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.