When Cherice Scott, her husband, and their four kids were notified they would be evicted from their Katy apartment in September, the complex personnel encouraged her not to worry.
In June, Scott and her husband fell behind on rent when Scott quit working to care for her Down syndrome baby, and medical costs piled up.
Their landlord began eviction proceedings the next month, despite Scott’s plea for aid from Texas’ $2 billion government-sponsored rental assistance fund. Scott claimed she talked to the office employees and left, thinking she didn’t have to worry about eviction or go to court.
When the state mailed the rent assistance payment to the wrong address, Scott said the staff promised to resend it.
“I trusted them.” “I shouldn’t.” Her stuff was left out on the lawn, and the locks changed when Scott got a new job as a dietitian at a local hospital. Their gadgets were stolen.
Mr. Williams granted the eviction without Scott being present in court, common when tenants do not show up for their hearings.
What happened to the rent assistance funds? Scott called for weeks before learning that her previous landlord had received over $11,000 in rent relief funds in mid-November to cover six months’ worth of back rent.
She and her four kids live in a short-term apartment in Missouri City. “Yet they drove us out.”
Scott’s former landlord, Blazer Real Estate Services, did not return calls or emails. A staffer in Blazer’s office declined to comment.
Both the federal and Texas governments had Scott and her family in mind when they rushed to construct a safety net for struggling tenants during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Texas Rent Relief program was created last year with over $2 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion federal stimulus plan.
Texas Tribune contacted residents authorized for federal rental assistance but were evicted anyway.
Like Scott, two other landlords removed renters and retained the government funds, apparently violating the program’s landlord criteria. The cheque was sent to the wrong home and arrived after the renter was evicted.
As a result of receiving federal funds under the Texas Rent Relief program, one landlord elected not to renew a tenant’s lease.
To receive federal rent relief money via the state, landlords had to sign an agreement prohibiting evictions for nonpayment during the aid period.
But housing groups and attorneys for evicted families claim Texas landlords often collect thousands of dollars from the government and remove the tenants.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which administers the state rent aid program, does not track how often this occurs.
And it’s not just Texas. According to the National Housing Law Project, tenants had reported incidents when landlords either refused to apply for rent relief programs or received the money and evicted their tenants.
“The industry standard here is a fraud,” said Stuart Campbell, managing attorney of Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center.
“These landlords are the main beneficiaries of these rental assistance programs and have repeatedly manipulated judges, getting judgments and evictions even when receiving funds.”
During the epidemic, many landlords sought to cooperate with renters to prevent evictions for late rent, according to David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association.
Getting rent relief money wasn’t assured, so Mintz said some landlords sued for eviction as the last choice after months without rent.
As Mintz points out, landlords can only remove tenants for particular reasons, such as contract breaches, property damage, or “physical harm” to others.
Tenants who feel they have been unfairly evicted can appeal, Mintz says. If a tenant or landlord is not following the program requirements, he said the program should be notified.
“We feel owners have done their best to grasp the program’s nuances and adhere to its requirements,” Mintz added.
The money Congress set available for emergency rental assistance was meant to keep families in their homes, said Houston Democrat Sylvia Garcia. A landlord receiving rent assistance funds while evicting tenants is “outrageous” and may merit an inquiry.
“I think any landlord who took money for rent should not have evicted anyone,” Garcia added. “And if they did, [government investigators] should audit and analyze it so we can recuperate our funds.”
This week, these politicians notified TDHCA that they had received “alarming calls from constituents” whose rent assistance funds were sent to the wrong address. The legislators wrote to TDHCA board chair Leo Vasquez on Thursday.
Meanwhile, both tenants and landlords were left in the dark by TDHCA for weeks — even months — about when the approved payments would ultimately come.
Texas halted the rent relief program for new applicants in November due to high demand. TDHCA said the money would go to renters who applied before the November deadline. The initiative has aided almost 300,000 households as of Wednesday.
In recent months, three Texas metro regions — Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth — have experienced some of the highest eviction case files in the country among the 31 cities tracked by Eviction Lab. This Princeton University research center studies eviction filings.
Tenants needed to be below a specific income level, show they were struggling financially during the epidemic, and show they would lose their house if they didn’t get a rent reduction.
Allegations of rent relief program fraud, waste, and abuse are investigated by several state and federal authorities, including TDHCA.
To the Tribune’s knowledge, no agency would reveal whether any landlord had been legitimately accused of receiving rent relief money and evicting residents or whether any had been penalized for it.
Some renters who talked to the Tribune claimed they contacted a hotline to report state rent relief program fraud, waste, and abuse and never heard back.
Scott claimed she complained about her landlord’s behavior to a program worker in October, who directed her to the program’s anti-fraud section. Then, two months later, Scott got an email acknowledging her concern, but nothing since.
“The tenants are still in the hole.”
Both the federal and state governments developed these initiatives. In Texas, the TDHCA, which supervises the statewide rent relief program, and the State Auditor’s Office can investigate waste, fraud, or abuse claims. The government Office of Inspector General (OIG) does this.
TDHCA runs the state hotline for complaints. After investigating the claims, the agency may report them to the state auditor, Treasury Inspector General, or local law enforcement.
TDHCA claims it has received over 7,500 complaints through the hotline but won’t reveal how many have been forwarded to outside organizations for examination. The State Auditor’s Office refused to reveal if it had investigated possible program fraud, waste, and abuse.
TDHCA spokeswoman Kristina Tirloni said last week that $20.1 million in rent assistance had been reclaimed, not all of it related to fraud, waste, or abuse claims.
Tirloni said the agency doesn’t track how much money is taken back from landlords who illegally remove tenants after receiving help or classify what instances result in money being clawed back.
“TDHCA has taken its role very seriously to assist Texas tenants and landlords,” Tirloni added.
But, according to Julia Ordua, Southeast Texas regional director for Texas Housers, none of the recovered funds go to displaced residents.
“Perhaps the money will be returned to Treasury,” Ordua stated. “But the tenants are still in the hole.”
In court, evictions are won, yet tenants are nonetheless evicted. Diana Johnson, 35, and her seven children were evicted from their three-bedroom apartment in Southeast Dallas in January.
Johnson, a hair salon manager and CNA approached the program for help paying rent in October when she was recovering from childbirth and unable to work. Texas Rent Relief granted her around three months’ rent at $3,100.
According to a copy of Johnson’s rent ledger supplied to the Tribune, her landlord, a partnership controlled by Houston developer Mark Musemeche, had already taken almost $4,200 in government money in August. Johnson stated she got COVID-19 around then and missed a month of work.
Johnson had inquired about the newest check, she added. They informed her there was no way to check if they got it.
A Texas Rent Relief employee notified Johnson the day before her eviction hearing that her landlord had paid the cheque and provided her with the check number. Johnson’s lawyer taped it.
After hearing about the cheque and phone call, Dallas County Justice of the Peace Juan Jasso questioned the property manager if they had received it. When the property manager confirmed it, Jasso rejected the eviction.
Johnson’s success was fleeting. Her landlord notified Johnson the same day that her lease wouldn’t be renewed the next week.
Johnson tries not to think about it. Her main concern is finding a new home for her and her seven kids. Her landlord granted her till May 31st.
“The more I think about it, the more I feel I should simply go ahead and do it,” Johnson added.
Musemeche did not return calls. Crestshire Village Apartments declined to comment.