DALLAS — A federal moratorium on evictions initially set to expire at the end of the year has now been extended through the end of January following the passage of a stimulus bill on December 21. To help inform and educate tenants of their rights, the City of Dallas has partnered with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas on its newest program – the Dallas Eviction Assistance Initiative – aimed to help those affected as a result of the pandemic brought on by COVID-19.
“One of the big things that we’ve seen in terms of COVID-19 is that people have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and they’re not aware of the protections and the rights that they have during this time,” said Priscylla Bento, Office of Equity and Inclusion policy manager for the City of Dallas. “So, the eviction assistance looks to provide that information to not only tenants, but also to landlords to ensure that landlords are aware of their responsibilities when it comes to evictions during this period of time.”
Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order temporarily preventing landlords from evicting tenants under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act in an effort to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus that to date has killed more than 330,000 per the CDC.
“Evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate settings such as homeless shelters,” the order states. “In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria — like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing — can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease.”
The state of Texas received $171 million in federal coronavirus relief funds from the CARES Act to assist renters facing evictions. A majority of the funds were allocated for renters, while the rest was set aside to fund legal services for residents. The Texas Eviction Diversion Program was also created to help coordinate efforts among state agencies, local governments, and nonprofits to help people avoid evictions plus catch up on missed rent payments.
Through the program, if both the eligible renter and landlord agree, the state can pause an eviction proceeding for 60 days. In doing so, a landlord can decide to resume eviction during that period. But if they don’t, the cost of back rent would be covered, allowing the landlord to receive the money, thus keeping the renter in her or his place of residence. Additionally, the eviction case would be dismissed. The state extended the Texas Eviction Diversion Program through at least March 15 following Congress' passing of the stimulus bill last week.
"The Texas Eviction Diversion Program is crucial to our state's response to COVID-19, and it will help many families recover from the impact of the pandemic without the looming threat of eviction," Abbott said in a press release about the program. "This innovative partnership, coupled with the renter’s assistance provided through CARES Act funding, will strengthen our economic recovery efforts and provide a lifeline to renters and property owners alike."
In order to qualify for the Dallas Eviction Assistance Initiative, renters must live in Dallas, be at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines, and negatively impacted by COVID-19.
“One of the hurdles that we have right now in our communities is trying to get the word out to folks who may not necessarily have access to the internet or have access to social, so they’re just not aware,” said Bento. “And again, that’s the goal of this initiative, to get that word out to those communities who may not know. There is help and they are not alone in this pandemic."
According to Bento, the city of Dallas alone accounts for about 60 percent of evictions filed in Justice of the Peace courts, adding that in Denton County Precinct 6, the city alone accounts for about 58 percent of evictions filed.
“In terms of number of evictions filed, I think the highest point this year was right before the pandemic in January where we saw a little over 2,500 evictions filed in Justice of the Peace court within the city of Dallas,” she said. “The lowest month was in April, and April is when we saw multiple moratoriums on evictions, so there were protections from the federal government, the state and the county level in terms of eviction moratoriums.”
During the month of April, Bento noted the number of evictions dropped to 33 in the city of Dallas. But last month, the evictions filed increased to a little over 1,000 for the month of November.
“We do have about five top ZIP codes that have had the highest number of evictions filed and these ZIP codes interestingly enough aren’t solely focused in South Dallas,” said Bento. “In fact, the only ZIP code in the southern sector that is in the top five is 75237, which comes in at number three with a total of 181 evictions filed for January through June. We’re still calculating the data for January through November to find out the top five ZIP codes.”
Based on data, the areas of Dallas County hit the hardest by evictions have been communities of color. However, breaking down demographics categorically can be difficult since that data isn’t requested when landlords file evictions.
“The ZIP codes we have found, the top five ZIP codes, one in the southern sector and four in the northern sector, are areas where we would consider them to be demographically diverse and they are areas where we could say that people of color are in higher density than in other areas," Bento said. “So, it can be asserted that the impact has negatively impacted our communities of color.”
With the future of federal moratoriums on evictions unclear past January, the City of Dallas insists the Dallas Eviction Assistance Initiative will continue to be a priority across the city through at least 2021.
“We do hope the other entities of our governmental bodies do provide assistance, but if that is something that does not come to fruition immediately we are prepared to continue assistance through education, training and again through legal representation for folks who do find themselves facing eviction in our courts,” said Bento.
For more information about the Dallas Eviction Assistance Initiative, call the Fair Housing Division at 214-670-FAIR (3247) or visit dallasfairhousing.com.