Millions of dollars are still available to help renters in Tarrant County who are facing potential eviction as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The county set aside $10 million in funds from the federal CARES Act for rental assistance. Less than a third has been spent leaving about $7 million still on the table for renters and landlords.
“One of the issues I see when I’m conducting hearings is that I don't believe a lot of people understand that money is available both from the landlord's and the tenant's perspective,” said Ralph Swearingin Tarrant County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1.
The funds help renters pay their bills and landlords get the money owed. Anyone in any Tarrant County city can apply for the help except for residents of Fort Worth. The city got its own funding through the CARES Act and runs a separate program for its residents in need of rental assistance.
“Getting the money out there is necessary and it's been a bit challenging to get people knowledgeable about the program such that we can help,” agreed Roy Brooks, Tarrant County Commissioner Precinct 1.
The county hopes a few adjustments will make a difference in letting residents know the help is there.
“I think our community outreach is something we think is working okay but we want to improve that because, if we have the money then we need to spend the money to assist our residents,” said County Administrator G.K. Maenius.
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To improve outreach, Swearingin and the other seven JP courts now tell tenants and landlords involved in eviction hearings about the rental assistance program and how to access it.
“Everybody wins by being involved in this program. And it's a voluntary program from the landlord's perspective. It’s not something they have to do, but I think people understand people in need,” Swearingin said. “This is an extraordinary time that we're living in. People are going through things they never would've imagined or experienced, so it is an avenue to help people.”
Faster distribution of checks is also in the pipeline.
“When we issue the checks, instead of putting them in the mail where it may take a week or so to get to the landlord, maybe two weeks which causes the landlord to have late fees, then what we're going to begin to do, at least for those landlords that are in Tarrant County, our office and the county is actually going to pick the checks up and we're going to do our own distribution. So, we'll run those checks out,” explained Maenius.
And on Tuesday, county commissioners will consider also picking up the tab on utilities and other fees owed by renters.
“Sometimes it's not enough to just pay the rent and leave those other things hanging out there, because not paying those things also creates a default under the lease. So, we're trying to broaden our program so we truly make landlords whole and can keep people housed,” Brooks said. “We’ve gained knowledge over the course of having run this program, and having talked to both landlords and tenants, it became clear this was a gap in our program that needed to be addressed.”
What else is clear, says Swearingin, is that a flood of eviction hearings may be on the way. He points to numbers from his court and others that show with eviction moratoriums in place, eviction hearings are way down yet the rent is still due. In his court alone, there were 2,141 hearings between March 1 – August 31, 2019. In the same six months for 2020, the number had dropped to 548. Across all JP courts, there were 15,280 eviction hearings from March 1 – August 31, 2019 and 4,363 in the same period for 2020.
From elected county officials to county administration, courts and the nonprofits that assist renters, the message is clear – the money is there to help keep them in their homes with approval.
“Don’t wait until the very end when you get an eviction notice. Call us now or go to our website, and if you need any assistance call 211,” Maenius said.
“And, what we don't want to see happen is that we develop a new class of pandemic homeless people,” Brooks said.
“Everything begins and ends with a home, and when you remove somebody from a home, everything else kinda falls apart,” Swearingin said. “This is a way to preserve people to stay in what the call they're home.”