Housing relief programs, which offer up to $3,500 in rental or mortgage assistance, are being pushed locally as eviction courts get ready to resume starting in two weeks.
Several judges are attaching information about the city and county rental assistance programs to mailed-out notices to appear in court. Should they have to appear in court, city and county representatives will be present to inform renters about their rights and options. Judges and local officials also hope renters and landlords can resolve disputes before they come to court.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the city and county have distributed roughly $22 million in housing and cost of living assistance to area residents who have lost their jobs or had wages reduced, in an effort to reduce displacement and homelessness.
“The goal is to help the tenants that are being evicted for nonpayment of rent to get access to the rental assistance,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said via email.
Three judges interviewed said they expect eviction lawsuits to begin to spike, but they’re hopeful some of the mitigation measures, talking specifically about the city and county dollars reserved for rental assistance, while quell the increase. They’re also hearing anecdotal evidence that landlords are working with tenants on payment plans and other forms of rent relief.
“They have been very diligent to work with tenants to try to avoid coming to court,” Justice of the Peace Rogelio Lopez, Precinct 4, said. “In fact with people willing to work out payment arrangements, they were willing to discount rent.”
Local and state moratoriums on eviction proceedings expired last month, and justices of the peace now must get through a backlog of cases that have been piled up before they suspended local hearings in mid March.
One thing to note: in San Antonio, city officials estimate 50% of rental properties— about 130,000—are protected from eviction under the CARES Act through July 24, because those properties received federal funding.
Precinct 2, which covers roughly the west and northwest sides of San Antonio, will be the first to resume proceedings on June 15. Precinct 4 resumes June 16, Precinct 3 June 22. It’s unknown when Precinct 1 will resume.
When they do resume, standard Covid-19 safety measures are expected to be in place, including social distancing and face mask requirements, at the county’s four justice of the peace courtrooms. Some dockets are expected to be a quarter the size of normal loads. One judge will hear cases via Zoom, with judge, landlord and defendant in different rooms while at the precinct.
“We’re taking every precaution,” Lopez said.
» To apply for the City of San Antonio’s emergency housing assistance program, click here or call 210-207-5910 or 311. You can also call the Guadalupe Community Center at 210-226-6178.
» More info on the housing assistance program
» To ask about Bexar County’s temporary rental assistance measure, call 210-940-1180
» Find out if your property is protected from eviction under the CARES Act by calling 210-207-5910.
» To ask about the city’s right to counsel program, call 210-212-3702.
» Call the St. Mary’s University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse other housing resources
Relief for renters
Since the City Council approved $25 million toward rental and mortgage assistance, and other cost of living expenses, in late April, $7.7 remains available, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said during the city’s Covid-19 briefing Monday. She also said the council is set to allocate another $25 million from the latest round of federal coronavirus relief funding at today’s City Council meeting.
The program is set to expire July 31, but Houston expects the council to extend it.
In March, the San Antonio Apartment Association began asking its members to forgive 25% of rent for tenants who receive relief from the city’s program.
The program, originally known as the risk mitigation fund, was approved in May 2019 as a preventative measure against displacement due to gentrification. When Covid-19 hit, the initiative took on a whole new importance when unemployment spiked. Households who make less than the area median income (AMI), which is $72,000 for a family of four, are eligible for the city and county’s programs.
If approved for the city’s program, households are eligible for up to $3,500 in rental or mortgage assistance, or $1,500 for utilities, for people making less than 80% AMI. For households making between 80% and 100% AMI, the payouts are less.
The program also offers assistance for groceries and gas.
People living outside San Antonio’s city limits but within Bexar County—in one of the 26 suburban cities or in unincorporated areas—can apply for the county’s program, which covers rent, not mortgages. Earlier this week, County Judge Nelson Wolff said $4-$5 million of the $12 million the county allocated has been spent.
Houston encouraged renters and landlords to apply for rental assistance, or to make payment arrangements, before eviction court resumes in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, the St. Mary’s University School of Law has set up a hotline for people struggling with housing during the pandemic.
People should call 210-570-6135, and leave a message with their full name, phone number and a brief description of the legal issue. Tenants will receive a return call, go through a screening process, and then schedule an appointment with a legal representative by phone or via Zoom.
The hotline is a collaboration between the St. Mary’s Law’s Consumer Protection Clinic and Pro Bono Program, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law.
“This hotline aims to provide residents with information about their rights and a measure of support in the face of great uncertainty brought about by the pandemic,” Louyse Siegel, a clinical fellow with the clinic, said in a press release.
The city is also touting its right to counsel program, which offers pro bono representation for renters being evicted via a lawyer with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Call 210-212-3702 to ask about the program.
Eviction filings in Bexar County
Here are the eviction lawsuit totals filed by landlords in Bexar County’s four justice of the peace courts.
Source: Bexar County Justice of the Peace
In Bexar County, for much of April and May, eviction court dates were suspended, but landlords could still file lawsuits. From February to March, eviction filings sank from 1,740 to 736, respectively. In April the total plummeted to 84 total cases filed. In May, there was an uptick to 320, still way below the normal totals.
New court procedures
At Lopez’s courtroom in Precinct 4, occupancy inside the building, including the courtroom, will be limited to less than 25%. People will be required to wear face masks and have their temperature checked at the door. He will give renters the option to have their hearing via phone, via Zoom at home or in person (also via Zoom).
Justice of the Peace Roberto A. Vasquez, Precinct 2, doesn’t expect a spike in cases, but a return to the normal load, which say roughly 20,000 cases filed a year. His precinct has seen the most eviction cases filed, far above the other precincts, during the pandemic. From February to May, his precinct has had 970 eviction cases filed. Precinct 4, the East Side, was second with 750 cases.
“We’re going to get back to where we were before,” Vasquez said. “It’s also going to be dependent on any more relief money that comes in from the federal government. City relief programs, county relief programs, most of the area that I serve is really going to be covered by the relief programs.”
Justice of the Peace Jeff Wentworth, Precinct 3, said his courtroom has 120 cases backlogged from before the outbreak with at least another 130 coming in post-Covid-19. That’s “not counting cases coming in this month,” Wentworth said.
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» Number of people seeking housing assistance in San Antonio soared 6,700% last two weeks
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Evictions, property tax foreclosures in Bexar County suspended due to COVID-19 concerns
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Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @rbolivo on Twitter
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