Supporting herself and a son in college with wages from her job cleaning houses was difficult even before the coronavirus pandemic reached San Antonio, but now Sonia Rodriguez finds herself out of work, without a car, and living with the daily fear of contracting the virus.

She won’t be out of work forever, she said in Spanish as her son translated, but she was told by her employer that the work – and her pay – will “stop until the coronavirus stops.”

Rent for her house in Government Hill is due Friday, and Rodriguez can’t afford it. A Texas Supreme Court ruling has halted eviction proceedings until May 18 and local judges aren’t presiding over eviction hearings until June 1, but she doesn’t want to fall behind and owe double rent when the moratorium lifts.

In response to the coronavirus-related shutdowns that have thrown thousands out of work, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County have implemented $29 million worth of housing assistance programs that issue payments to landlords and lenders on behalf of residents who can’t pay. Still, many renters and homeowners worry about being swept up in a wave of evictions and foreclosures before the economy has a chance to recover. Elected officials are weighing more assistance options as more than 1.3 million people filed for unemployment benefits in Texas over the past five weeks.

“I want to get a job, but I can’t,” said Rodriguez’s 20-year-old son, Daniel who is currently enrolled at San Antonio College. Many places aren’t hiring, and “my mom doesn’t want me to use the bus because of the coronavirus,” he said.

They paid April’s rent with donations gathered from COPS/Metro Alliance and neighbors and congregants of Rodriguez’s church. This week, the Rodriguez family is applying to receive emergency funding from the City of San Antonio to help with May’s bills for rent and utilities, including the internet that Daniel needs to take classes online.

Funding from the City’s new COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, which can be applied to rent and mortgage payments, also comes with cash that residents can use to buy groceries, gas, or other necessities. That money will help the Rodriguez family get by another month.

More than 3,900 families have received assistance through the program in the first six days since it was officially established April 23, according to City figures. That represents $7 million in payments, leaving $18 million left in what was possibly the largest city-run housing assistance program in the country. Bexar County’s $4 million Temporary Rental Assistance Measure, which serves renters outside San Antonio’s boundaries, will start taking applications on Friday.

Before Council approved the measure, City staff was already working on 1,400 applications for $2.3 million worth of aid from a separate fund designed to protect residents from rising rents that was established before the pandemic. If the current demand continues, the original $25 million program could run out of money in three weeks.

As the due date for rent approaches, the City typically sees more applications.

“The increase in applications is not a surprise given the outreach and media push from last week’s council action,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said Wednesday. “We [also responded to] the over 5,000 inquiries we received for the program [with] an email informing them that they can now submit their application and necessary documentation electronically.”

The City has partnered with COPS/Metro, the San Antonio Apartment Association, affordable housing providers, housing nonprofits, and others to “get the word out and assist those that do not have access to the internet to complete applications,” Houston said.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) worked with COPS/Metro and the Texas Organizing Project to convince City Council to approve even more money for the housing assistance program. “It’s not enough,” Treviño said.

Even with some businesses reopening Friday, it won’t be enough to put back to work all the employees who have been laid off or furloughed, he said. The tourism and hospitality industry, in particular, has a long way to go.

Moratoriums in place

The Texas Supreme Court has suspended eviction hearings and related procedures until May 18, and Bexar County justices of the peace, who preside over eviction hearings, suspended those related to nonpayment and the pandemic until June 1, giving tenants some leeway in paying rent. The County also has stopped foreclosures through May 18.

In addition, if an apartment complex owner or rental homeowner has a federally backed mortgage, they can’t start eviction proceedings until Aug. 23 because of a 120-day moratorium on eviction filings and notice requirements.

But evictions were already happening at an alarming rate in Bexar County even before the coronavirus pandemic, Treviño said.

While San Antonio has invested more than other major cities so far on housing assistance, other major metropolitan cities in the U.S., such as Austin, have passed rules to make landlords give a 60-day notice to tenants before filing an eviction claim.

“I’d hate to be the only major city that does not [adopt a similar policy],” said Treviño, who asked City staff to explore implementing a similar measure here.

City Attorney Andy Segovia has told Council members that such a law isn’t as effective as direct housing assistance and eviction moratoriums, and it “may impair effective relief for the tenant if we followed the Austin ordinance.”

“We are also exploring education measures by landlords to tenants that would promote the use of the City’s resources for payment of rent to prevent eviction,” he said.

El Paso and Hidalgo Counties passed ordinances capping rent at current levels until after emergency orders are lifted.

When it comes to regulating rent and housing in general, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said, state law makes it clear that cities and counties have little control.

“As well-intentioned as [Austin’s ordinance] is, it’s going to have an enforceability problem,” said Pelaez, who is an employment attorney and has landlord clients.

The City could require landlords who accept rent through the City’s housing assistance program to agree to provide tenants a 30- or 60-day proposal to evict before filing, Pelaez said. For landlords, he added, “it’s better than getting zero dollars” for rent.

If such an ordinance was approved landlords could choose whether follow it and provide more notice, said Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jeff Wentworth, who presides over eviction hearings in his court.

“My guess is that there would be some who abide … but others won’t, and they would challenge it,” Wentworth said.

Judge Jeff Wentworth sits in the courtroom at Bexar County Justice of Peace, Precinct 3.
Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jeff Wentworth. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The City is working on finding a compromise policy or program with affordable housing advocates and the apartment association, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Thursday.

“The other thing we’re looking at is non-monetary ways that the community can come together and ensure that people aren’t – by the droves – forced into eviction proceedings,” Nirenberg said. “It’s going to take cooperation with the rental community and those property owners and so we hope to have something very soon that the Council can put into place.”

Pelaez disagrees with the assumption that there will be a wave of evictions once the moratorium is lifted. He argues that many landlords would rather wait to get paid once more people return to work than put in the time and effort of ousting tenants.

“Landlords would rather get paid than go fight you in court,” he said.

Pelaez and Treviño agree that a vast majority of landlords will try to do the compassionate and fiscally responsible thing during the pandemic.

Eighty-five landlords who have accepted rent through the City housing assistance program have agreed to reduce their rent by 25 percent, Houston said.

“There are many owners [and landlords] doing things independent of that program,” said Selina Lazarin, president of the San Antonio Apartment Association. “One owner gave a flat, across-the-board 10 percent off of rent and waiving late fees. … Almost all owners are working out payment arrangements. All we need is for the resident to talk to us.”

The association is working with the City to come up with more solutions, but it won’t look like the Austin ordinance, she said, which adds months onto an already lengthy eviction process. “It’ll satisfy what is trying to be achieved.”

Tenants locked out

But Olmos Club Apartments, a complex in the Olmos Park Terrace neighborhood, locked at least 18 tenants out of their homes this week for non-payment of rent and suspicion of selling drugs, according to Texas Public Radio.While the tenants were eventually let back inside, the incident was a reminder that some landlords also are under pressure to pay their bills.

The Olmos Club has received funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill, so the tenants are protected from eviction, Houston said.

The company that owns the complex, MacTex Properties, is not a member of the local apartment association, Lazarin said. MacTex did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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“I do not know the circumstance of that particular property,” Lazarin said, “but the real purpose of [a lockout] is to initiate contact” with tenants who might be behind in rent or otherwise in violation of their lease.

If a tenant isn’t communicating with a landlord, a lockout is seen as a last resort and rarely used, she said.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Christina Trejo, who represented one of the locked-out tenants, confirmed her client was back home.

“The [eviction] moratorium is great, but what we’re worried about at Legal Aid is what happens after that lifts,” she said. “The moratorium doesn’t stop evictions, it just postpones them.”

It’s unclear if eviction filings have increased in April. Bexar County did not respond to a request for eviction data filed April 13 by the Rivard Report. Under rules applying to catastrophes or disasters, such as a pandemic, State law allows governmental bodies to delay public information requests.

The eviction process

Once an eviction is filed, a notice to vacate is sent to the tenant, Trejo said. That notice is often interpreted as an eviction order by many tenants.

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Treviño successfully lobbied the city to earmark $100,000 for a tenant right-to-counsel program that gives renters access to free or discounted legal help when facing eviction. He said he plans on finding more funding for that program during the pandemic.

It usually takes about a month for a judge to hear an eviction case, said Trejo, who oversees the right-to-counsel program. If a decision to evict is not appealed by the tenant, then a writ of possession is executed, and the sheriff’s office removes the tenant’s belongings from the home. If the tenant appeals the decision, that typically takes another month to schedule, Trejo said.

In situations where lawyers are required, there’s usually not a path forward for payment plans and conflict resolution, she said. But not all landlord-tenant relationships in times of hardship require legal action.

“Not all landlords are terrible,” she said. “We’re just worried about the ones that are.”

So-called “slumlords” – the bad actors – are not typically members of the apartment association, Lazarin said, so it’s important that residents are aware of the housing assistance program.

“We need to make sure vulnerable tenants understand what resources are available,” she said.

Residents are eligible for the assistance program if they provide proof of financial hardship that renders the household unable to pay rent, mortgage, or utilities and have an income at or below 100 percent of the Area Median Income. Under these Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, a San Antonio family earning $72,000 a year or below would qualify. Applications for assistance can be filled out online here in Spanish or English.

The County’s program only applies to renters and the qualifications are generally the same.

Lupita Valdez, a COPS/Metro leader and administrator at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, is helped Sonia and Daniel Rodriguez fill out the application for housing assistance.

“Sonia is very devoted to work and to her son,” Valdez said. “This kind of situation – like Sonia’s – there’s a lot of people it’s happening to.”

The City, Housing Trust, and San Antonio Area Foundation is also coordinating donations to the emergency fund. Smaller donations can be made online or by texting HousingHelpSA to 41444. Larger donations will be collected via email: covid19@saafdn.org.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com