The morning after Father’s Day, Kevin Gandy, 60, a father and grandparent himself, was due to appear in eviction court. The Air Force veteran had seen his hours as a Google fiber technician dwindle to near nothing at the start of the pandemic. Since March, he and his wife, Margie, had not paid the $1,160 rent on their two bedroom apartment at the Las Cimas Apartments on Fredericksburg Road. The night before, he couldn’t slept. To top things off, that morning his truck wouldn’t start until a neighbor gave him a jump.
This was Monday, June 22, six weeks after Gandy applied for the city’s Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program, which the City Council approved on April 23. He hadn’t heard from the city whether he was approved for the aid.
“Waiting for that court date … knowing that you’re about to be evicted and that you have no funds at all, it plays on your mind,” Gandy said. “You’re stressed straight out.”
It wasn’t until he received a call early that morning from Joleen Garcia, a community organizer with Texas Organizing Project, who had been hounding her City Hall contacts in the weeks leading up to Gandy’s court date, trying to get answers on the status of his application, that Gandy’s worries subsided to a degree.
Garcia told Gandy the city had informed her via email that his rent was going to be squared away. He wondered why the city didn’t tell him directly. When he finally arrived at the Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2, off Bandera Road, Gandy was met by Garcia and other supporters holding up protest signs, and by a couple of TV news crews and other media, which Garcia had arranged to be there.
When he entered the building, an employee with the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) informed him his back rent and fees, close to $5,000, would be covered, Gandy said. Moments later, Judge Roberto A. Vasquez, informed about the aid from the city, reset the court date to late July. Gandy was safe, for now.
It’s unclear what held up Gandy’s application, whether the city dropped the ball, or whether Gandy didn’t submit the proper paperwork, which he said he did in a timely fashion. Either way, he was left in the dark, he said, with no word from the city on the status of his application.
Another question is whether others applying for housing assistance are falling through the cracks. Of the 12,528 applications submitted (from late April, when the program started, to June 29), 31%, or 3,861, were marked denied. Among the reasons: the applicant lived outside the city limits or they submitted duplicate applications. They also may have made above the area median income (AMI) and therefore didn’t qualify. Or, they no longer needed the help. The program’s administrators also say if an applicant is non-responsive to their calls and emails, they’ll be marked denied. However, if they were to reconnect with city, their application would be put back into the queue.
The city admits it may be culpable in qualified renters not receiving aid.
“We recognize that people could fall through the cracks,” said Edith Merla, NHSD public relations manager. “That is why we have so many protections in place and are making every effort to keep people from being evicted. That begins with people knowing about the program before they fall behind and ends with our court team who are present for those last-minute interventions.”
» 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, visit covid19.sanantonio.gov.
» 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
The online application portal has been called unfriendly to seniors or other people who may not be tech savvy by people familiar with the process.
The city acknowledges the long wait issues and says it has shortened those durations—from when a person submits the proper documents to when the assistance is granted—to 15 days. It’s also partnering with grassroots groups to help promulgate the program, and help people apply for it.
In Gandy’s case, the city contends, the system worked: he got his assistance. As a kind of safety net of last resort, city staff have been allowed to post up at the four Justice of the Peace precincts, on hand to counsel people being evicted about their options, an unprecedented measure the city is taking during the crisis.
Gandy’s main beef with the city is the lack of communication, and the emotional toll that takes on someone, especially during a time when many people are in self-quarantine.
“I’m grateful to the city for organizing and trying to take care of folks,” Gandy said, “but then again … I would expect that the larger metro areas would have some kind of safety net or something that would be implemented pretty quick during a pandemic like this. … I’m very grateful. I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, and I’m not in any way trying to dirty mouth the city. But I will be honest with you and tell you it took a really long time and was very, very stressful.”
Incoming tidal wave?
In June, eviction court in Texas started up again after the Texas Supreme Court’s moratorium expired in late May. Filings by landlords show the numbers are starting to creep back to their pre-Covid-19 totals. That’s the half of it: On July 25, the federal moratorium on evictions for properties backed by federal subsidies is set to expire. When this happens, the city estimates half of the rental units in San Antonio, or rather those who live in them, will no longer be shielded from displacement, and those landlords can give tenants a notice to vacate, the first step in the eviction process.
Properties with Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed mortgages, however, have an eviction and foreclosure moratorium through Aug. 31.
Unless the moratoriums are extended, housing advocates fear a tidal wave of evictions will crash over San Antonio at a time when the precarious nature of the economy appears to be the new norm for the foreseeable future. This puts a strain on landlords, as well, who must find tenants to to maintain their properties, and pay insurance and property taxes.
Like other social services during the crisis, the city’s housing assistance program has become inundated with applications, fielding as many as 100 a day, city officials said. They said the system can bear the weight of the demand—93 staffers are processing applications, a figure that has increase by 45 employees over the last month.
Since the City Council approved the program on April 23, about 5,500 families have been helped with rental and mortgage aid, as well as utility bills and cash for groceries, medicine and gas, as of June 29. The city says if you qualify, you get the assistance.
The program has $51.6 million allocated. So far, $15.1 million has been spent on the 5,000-plus households. Another $8.7 million is reserved for 3,100 families as their applications are being processed, the city says. Assuming those applications are approved, the city will have $28 million remaining in the program.
One sobering stat: the majority of the recipients, some 56%, make 10% of the area median income or less, Edward Gonzales, NHSD assistant director, said last week. The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the San Antonio region is $72,000. Ten percent of that is $7,200 a year.
Gandy was already two months behind on rent, owing more than $2,000 to Las Cimas, when he saw information about the housing assistance program flash on the TV. On May 5, Gandy applied for the support, but he needed help from his 20-year-old granddaughter to fill out the application and upload documents to the online platform.
Gandy’s income shrank from roughly $1,750 every two weeks to between $250 and $500. His wife not able to work and he with sporadic hours, the Gandys spent their money on food and transportation. The other essential, the roof over their heads, had to give.
A week later, on May 12, he received an email from NHSD, telling him he needed to submit more information, but wasn’t specific. He had to click a link, which is now broken. Gandy said he immediately uploaded the additional documents, again with the help of his granddaughter, and waited. He can’t remember exactly what information or documents were missing from the initial application. Unsigned leases or illegible documents are two examples of paperwork that may need to be resubmitted, according to the city. The next day, he did hear some good news: another city department was settling his CPS Energy debt.
Weeks went by, as back rent continued to compound. Gandy began calling other resources he found on TV via the city, such as the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that offers pro bono representation to people being evicted. The group connected Gandy to Garcia, the community organizer. Around the same time, his landlord issued him a notice to vacate, which gives the renter three days before a landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.
Here are figures for the city’s Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program as of June 29:
» Total applications — 12,528
» Processed — 9,706
» Denied — 3,861
Outside city limits—1,492
» In progress—2,822
» Under review—1,710
***—Non-responsive, resident no longer needs assistance, or applied for only utility assistance only (referred to the Department of Human Services)
Source: City of San Antonio
Gandy’s wait pales in comparison to that of Michael Luna, 39, an electrical supervisor for a fracking company in the Eagle Ford Shale, whose hours were dramatically reduced when Covid-19 hit. When that happened, Luna, who lives with his wife and kids in an apartment just inside the city limits near Loop 1604 and Bandera Road, went from making $2,700 a week to $800.
He signed up immediately after the council approved the program in late April, and spent weeks working with city staff on his application. However, he didn’t receive confirmation from the city that his application had been approved until June 22, the same day Gandy went to court.
“You have to make sure you have all your documents,” Luna said. “I had to provide (the documents) multiple times because of the way the system is, through the hyperlinks. … I had to send it three or four times.”
“The system if definitely flawed in that it’s not going to be immediate help,” he said.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said NHSD has trimmed the wait times considerably since the early days of the program.
“We were telling people initially it would take up to 30 days from the day you submitted a complete application,” Houston told the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee on Monday. “We have got that down to 15 days now.”
She said the applicant is given up to seven days to respond to missing information. Once the application is completed, it takes another seven days for the city to process it, Houston said. Staffers make two phone calls and send an email outlining the steps before they’re marked denied if there is no response.
Luna praised the staff for guiding him through the process, “I can say the representatives they have working there were God given. They were amazing in every which way you can imagine as far as making it very personal.”
For Luna’s family, the program covered $3,301 in rent (a month and half’s worth), a $198.06 CPS Energy bill, and provided $300 from the Family Independence Initiative, a national organization the city has partnered with, along with the H.E. Butt Foundation and other local nonprofits, to provide small cash grants to families in need.
On the ground
The city has also partnered with community groups such as Domesticas Unidas, which empowers domestic workers, and COPS Metro to help get the word out and to help folks traverse the process.
“Let’s face it, a lot of the people who do need assistance are people who are not familiar with how all that stuff works,” Luna said.
But those groups don’t cover the entire population, and people like Gandy, who applied for the assistance on his own, weeks before he met Garcia, didn’t have a connection with one of the groups helping out.
So far, the city says outside of eviction court, no landlord has rejected the assistance. However, Garcia says otherwise.
“I’m speaking to someone right now (who is) not receiving assistance because the landlord says he just wants to evict her,” Garcia said.
Even if renters are not able to benefit from the city’s system, there are other services city officials can refer people to such as, in Gandy’s case, the American G.I. Forum. Other options include SAMMinistries and St. Vincent de Paul.
“People are very desperate right now,” Gonzales, NHSD’s assistance director, said. “We are taking this very compassionate, expedited, accurate approach to processing these applications. We are making sure anything that gets denied is literally taking three touches (before a) manager is approving those denials.”
For those who may not be comfortable around a computer, Gonzales said, they can approach some of the organizations the city has partnered with to help fill out applications.
The city also opened “financial and housing recovery centers” on Wednesday, where people can get help with housing assistance (which includes Bexar County’s rental assistance program for folks who lives outside the city limits), financial counseling, small business aid, and other resources. The physical locations are:
» Central Library, 600 Soledad St.
» Claude W. Black Community Center, 2805 E. Commerce St.
» The Neighborhood Place, 3014 Rivas St.
Or, people can call 210-207-5910 and a city staff member will walk San Antonians through the process via phone, then create in-person, socially distanced meetings.
Have you applied for rental assistance from the city? We’d like to hear from you, whether you received the aid or not, for a potential article. Will you email us?
At the start of the year, the city launched a right to counsel program, in which lawyers with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid represent defendants at no cost. Later this month, landlords will be required to provide tenants with a notice of tenants rights, an ordinance City Council recently approved, which lists resources and other options, at the same time they give them a notice to vacate.
Linda Ortega, a COPS Metro member with Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the West Side, said she’s helped maybe 100 people, mostly out of her home, navigate the various programs.
Most of them are referrals, “My comadre told me, or my friend told me,” she said.
She also acts as their spokesperson, contacting NHSD directly to nudge them if an applicant hasn’t heard from the staff in a while.
Most of the people she’s helped only speak Spanish. They work predominately in the restaurant industry, or they’re domestic workers or caregivers, she said.
Here’s how the $51.6 million is being spent:
» $33 million—federal funding
» $8.1 million—city funding
» $9 million—Family Independence Initiative (direct cash)
» $1.2 million—administrative costs
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, the most staunch housing advocate on the council, has requested an online dashboard, showing how the $51.6 million is being spent, to be made available for public use.
He also said he’s concerned the city doesn’t have enough local dollars, where the city can set the qualifications, as opposed to federal dollars, which are more stringent. Treviño specifically pointed to how undocumented families don’t qualify for federal dollars, where $33 million has been allocated, as opposed to local dollars, where $8.1 million was set aside.
“As we move forward, we have to fill up both tanks,” Treviño said. “We cannot only be thinking about one. … I’m already making the call that we will have to come back for some support and help nonfederal dollars to balance out all the money we are getting for federal funding.”
When Gandy entered the Justice of the Peace two Mondays ago, he was already running late and we walked past a desk where NHSD staffers were counseling defendants.
He sat down in the courtroom, and an NHSD staffer asked him for a word in the hall.
“The city at that point finally was trying to intervene, or just to let me know as I sat there waiting for the judge that somebody was coming to my aid,” Gandy recalls. “That’s like at a hangin’; they already put the damn hood on your head.”
On the way out, Gandy spoke with the NHSD staffer, who guided him to the American G.I. Forum for additional rental assistance, for July, since he was maxed out on the amount allowed under the city’s program.
“She was sorry it had taken that long,” he said of the staffer.
Bexar County eviction lawsuit totals
Source: Bexar County Justice of the Peace
One of the judges, Judge Rogelio Lopez Jr. of Precinct 4, said the recent spike in cases has caused him to suspend in-person hearings to help curb the spread of Covid-19. The hearings at least in his courtroom, will be done virtually for the time being. For his part, Lopez has brought in the county’s mediation services to help tenants and landlords work out some kind of arrangement.
He said his decision making when it comes to eviction cases hasn’t been altered by Covid-19, because the law remains the same. Only now, he said, tenants have more options for assistance. He also added he can’t force a landlord, under the state property code, to work with a tenant if that tenant has broken the lease because of unpaid rent.
“Before or now, the law is still what’s written in the books,” Lopez said. “The law is pretty clear: if you breech the lease … then the law says (the landlord) is entitled to relief. I, as well as any other judge in the state of Texas, have upheld the law.”
Lopez received some biting criticism from comedic talk show host Jaime Oliver on Sunday night during an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO. In a segment in which he predicted an imminent tidal wave of evictions across America, Oliver pointed out Lopez’s tactic to keep the justice system going coronavirus be damned.
“You know, it might be worth thinking twice about what you’re taking part in if you’re throwing people out of their homes via Zoom, a platform you’re only using because it’s not safe for people to leave their homes,” Oliver said.
Lopez said he’s just upholding the law.
“I will tell you it is not easy for me to close the doors to the court,” Lopez said. “I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years, and I believe in our justice system. For me to restrict access is not a decision that is made lightly. It is a very, very difficult decision.”
‘That guy’s ridiculous’
Gandy, who spent 14 years in the Air Force, seven of those years as a military training instruction at Lackland Air Force Base, was outside the nondescript Precinct 2 building, where he fielded questions from two TV reporters.
An older white man, pulling up from his car some 50 yards away, Gandy estimates, shouted, “Pay your damn rent and you won’t get evicted.”
“He said this while I was on camera,” Gandy said.
He recalls saying to the journalists, “You see that guy over there? That guy’s ridiculous. Years back, I probably put some of his kids through basic training. Why would he say that?”
“Of the situation people are in, of the pandemic and no work for some, and self-quarantining,” Gandy said, “how can you hold them responsible or be angry with them because they are asking for assistance from the city? … How can you even purse your lips to say something that stupid?”
Area median income
Here are the latest area median income (AMI) levels for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to know more about how AMI works? Click here.
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» Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans in most counties to wear masks in public
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» Property owners asked to file appraisal protests online amid Covid-19
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» San Antonio Housing Authority chips in $350K for rental assistance
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town
Disclaimer: Heron Editor Ben Olivo was recently hired as a part-time consult for H.E. Butt Foundation regarding Family Independence Initiative’s marketing plan in San Antonio.