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Rent Relief for Who?

On May 7, the $15 million rent relief program the Houston city council approved went into effect. Tenants will be able to apply on May 13th. This program requires landlords to enroll in the program in order for tenants to be eligible to receive relief funds if they’ve fallen behind on rent during this health crisis. According to ABC 13, this program has the potential to help 6,818 people across Houston. This number may increase if you include the renter’s family members who also live in the rental unit. The Houston Tenants Union (HTU) encourages tenants whose landlords have enrolled in the program and may qualify for relief funds to seek the monetary assistance made available.

However, we must be clear that this rent relief program is nothing more than a bailout for landlords disguised as help for tenants. During HTU’s 7 Days of Tenant Power campaign, it became clear that Mayor Turner and the Houston city council have turned a blind eye to how tenants are being super-exploited and taken advantage of by landlords. A local journalist is investigating the reason why Mayor Turner is ignoring tenants. She is tracing the political donations he has received from organizations like the Houston Apartment Association (HAA). Essentially HAA is a landlord lobby that masquerades as an impartial resource for both tenants and landlords. So, of course HAA would approve this rent relief program. It’s why they’re paying Mayor Turner to look out for their interests. In addition, Mayor Turner, the Houston City Council and Judge Lina Hidalgo never committed to a solid 60 day eviction moratorium. Instead they extended the eviction moratorium twice, increasing the stress, anxiety and precarity of tenants as they hustle to secure housing.

Sylvester Turner with Marvin Odum, Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 "Recovery Czar", also ex-President of Shell Oil

The funding for the program comes from the federal CARES Act grant to Houston, which is $404 million total. Mayor Turner admitted during the City Council meeting earlier this week that the relief program does not come close to what is needed, and that he wants to push this through because of the "enormous pressure." City Council member Jerry Davis admitted that he, as a landlord, will not be signing up for this. The City Council meeting was generally full of pleas for more funding out of the $404 million, and skepticism at the efficacy of the program. Furthermore, it is unclear if the rent relief program will be providing assistance to undocumented communities. As this crisis has unfolded HTU started documenting the harassment, bullying, threats and intimidation tenants have suffered at the hands of landlords throughout Houston. Since the eviction moratorium began on March 18, landlords have filed 1,085 evictions to be carried out after the eviction moratorium ends on May 18. The rent relief program only extends this to June 1st for tenants who sign up for it. Moreover, according to the Kinder Institute at Rice University, “Renters make up 45 percent of Harris County’s population. Within the City of Houston that number rises to 57 percent. In total there are 703,000 renting households in the county.” The 6,818 families that qualify for rent relief are only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of tenants who have fallen behind or are unable to pay rent as a result of losing their job. In the end, the vast majority of tenants, even those that may receive rent relief, remain vulnerable. This rent relief program doesn’t change the overall housing conditions tenants find themselves in as this crisis continues to unfold in the long run.

What this crisis makes clear is that there are powerful political forces in Houston organized against tenants. It isn’t enough to direct tenants to the relief fund program and hope for the best. Tenants need our own organization in order to build our fighting capacity to resist these forces and prioritize the needs of our families, friends and neighbors. The housing data collected before and after Hurricane Harvey clearly establishes that tenants face mass evictions despite being in the middle of a crisis. What matters most to landlords in moments of crisis is paying rent. But we don’t have to accept this data as an inevitable future outcome. Already tenants are starting to contact HTU to fight back against landlord abuses using direct action. Don’t wait, join HTU and other Houston tenants as we organize and take the fight to the landlords.

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