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Texas agency says rent relief distribution ‘improving dramatically,’ though backlog remains

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 4/29/2021 Dom DiFurio, The Dallas Morning News
a large clock tower towering over Texas State Capitol: The Texas State Capitol in Austin. © Lynda M. González/Staff Photographer The Texas State Capitol in Austin.

Texas’ $1.3 billion COVID-19 rental relief program has ramped up its payments to tenants by 780% since the start of April, a state agency told lawmakers Wednesday.

The state House of Representatives’ Urban Affairs Committee reconvened for an update on the so-far rocky rollout of federal rental relief funds to tenants and landlords.

“Things are improving dramatically,” said Bobby Wilkinson, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Texas has paid out $36.4 million in assistance to more than 5,000 Texas households, according to the agency overseeing the distribution of federal relief funds. In Dallas County, about $6 million has been paid to 856 households.

The average amount of rent relief requested in Dallas County was $7,000, signaling that renters are looking to make up months of back rent. That $7,000 could cover nearly six months at the average price of rent in Dallas, which sits at roughly $1,200.

The state now has 1,450 workers contributing to the relief program, including 900 focused on reviewing applications.

The agency has also launched an online dashboard where the public can track how much funding has been distributed. The dashboard, updated daily, is an effort to be more transparent, Wilkinson said.

At the current pace of payments, the agency estimated it will distribute all $1.3 billion in funding by September.

“I need $1 billion in requests to get $1 billion out the door by September and we’re not there yet,” Wilkinson said.

To date, Texans submitted 97,382 applications, with payments going out to about 5.5%, according to the state agency.

Wilkinson urged tenants facing eviction to contact the agency to be moved to its priority list where it can process applications faster.

Arionna Mitchell-Wilson, a property manager assisting her tenants in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston with applications, testified about her frustration with a lack of communication from the state. Mitchell-Wilson said her roughly 80 to 90 tenants needing assistance applied when the program launched months ago and nearly all are still awaiting payment.

Mitchell-Wilson also said she doesn’t feel comfortable filing evictions against her elderly and formerly homeless tenants just to move them to the front of the line.

“We have a lot of families that are in need of help,” Mitchell-Wilson said. “They’re paying payments of $50 [or] $100. They’re doing everything they can.”

The state payments come from a U.S. Treasury fund established by the CARES Act and supplemental pandemic relief packages passed by Congress late last year.

Texas’ program launched in mid-February but had disbursed less than 1% of its funding by April.

The state agency hired consulting firm Horne LLP to roll out the program, though it has been bringing on additional vendors after Horne failed to set up a functional online application system. Lawmakers did not ask Wilkinson about the status of Horne’s $42.6 million contract Wednesday.

The program experienced a number of software issues and setbacks at launch, including the winter freeze in February that halted business activity and knocked out power for millions of Texans.

In a previous meeting with the Urban Affairs Committee, legislators urged the agency to reduce the cost of Horne’s contract and find a way to halt evictions while the agency worked to speed up disbursement.

Texas renters and property owners can request rental assistance at Texasrentrelief.com or by calling 1-833-989-7368 Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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