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Dallas housing officials working to avoid ‘avalanche’ of COVID-related evictions

Although a moratorium on evictions has been extended, Dallas fair housing officials are trying to stave off the possibility of eviction filings and homelessness.

DALLAS — Editor's note: Above video from a previous story on emergency assistance program in Dallas. 

Although a moratorium on COVID-related evictions has been extended, Dallas fair housing officials are trying to stave off the possibility of an “avalanche” of eviction filings and homelessness when the ban does expire.

“The possibility of an avalanche is stark and it's real,” said Priscylla Bento, policy manager for the city of Dallas’ Office of Equity and Inclusion. “But we have the opportunity to mitigate that avalanche if we can continue to efficiently push out rent relief.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ban on evictions was set to expire on July 31, but after a plea from the White House, the agency extended it until Oct. 3 in areas where COVID rates remain high, which includes Texas.

A federal judge on Friday rejected a request by landlord groups to block the CDC’s new moratorium. More than 11 million Americans are behind on their rent, according to the Census Household Pulse Survey. That puts them at higher risk of eviction when the federal moratorium does expire.

RELATED: Millions of dollars available through Dallas County HHS emergency housing assistance program

In Texas, 619,061 renter households were behind on rent through the end of July — 6,734 more than in June, according to Zillow Group Inc. The online real estate marketplace estimates there are more than 335,000 renter households in Texas currently at risk of eviction, which is 80,514 more than in June.

Although evictions and filings are difficult to forecast, Zillow projects there will be 50,810 filings in Texas, and 23,718 are likely to result in eviction.

Just over 39% of those who are behind on rent believe they are very likely to be evicted, while 26% say they are somewhat likely, 20% not very likely, and 15% say they are not at all likely to be evicted, a Zillow survey found.

The number of renters at risk, number of filings and actual evictions have all increased from June, Zillow notes.

Eviction filings in Dallas County fell sharply when eviction proceedings were suspended across Texas in March 2020.

Public health and fair housing officials worry that a potential eviction crisis when the ban lifts will lead to higher rates of COVID-19 infection, especially as new variants emerge.

In Dallas County there were about 1,900 eviction filings in July, compared to about 4,000 in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit the state.

“The concern that we have is that we go back to those pre-COVID numbers,” Bento said. “If we do go back to those, we have the possibility and the potential of having people run out in the middle of a pandemic. As we're all aware, the delta variant is increasing rapidly day by day.

RELATED: Nearly 1.5 million Texans have 'no' or 'little' confidence they can make the rent

Bento said data from the North Texas Regional Housing Assessment shows that evictions historically align with the racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty.

“They’re being hard hit,” she said. Low-income tenants who are displaced often are forced into substandard housing in lower-income, higher crime areas, according to the Brookings Institution research group. Evictions lead to a host of societal costs and other ills, including increased emergency room usage, more suicides, homelessness, decreased credit access, food insecurity, and more challenges with academic performance, according to Brookings. The COVID pandemic has also worsened historical racial and ethnic inequities in housing and is disproportionately affecting renter households.

Dallas' Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Office of Community Care are partnering to put on educational events in the next two months, Bento said. The city is partnering with others, too, including the United Way and Dallas Housing Authority, which offers the opportunity for rent relief at dallasrentrelief.com, Bento said.

“The biggest focus isn't necessarily worrying about the end of a moratorium, but more so focusing on effectively and efficiently providing rental assistance and legal services so that we can assist people, because the moratorium will come to an end sooner than later,” she said.

The City of Dallas passed an ordinance in April requiring landlords to give tenants a notice warning them of possible eviction and protect them if their financial hardship is related to COVID. Tenants have 21 days after the notice to provide documentation of a COVID-related hardship. Then another 39 days after that to try to reach a payment plan agreement with their landlord.

Landlords and their advocates argued in April that the ordinance would be unfair to landlords who have maintenance, repairs, taxes and other expenses to cover.

Balancing the needs of landlords and tenants is tricky but crucial, Bento said.

“It's easy to make the landlord the bad guy, but everyone's in a bind right now,” she said. “Our goal isn't to pit anyone against each other. Our goal isn't to make it one team versus another team. We're really trying to work together to address the needs of everyone.”

“The last resort is legal services due to people facing evictions in court, but we try to mitigate it,” Bento added. “We try to help people bridge that communication gap before it gets to that point.” More city of Dallas resources for tenants facing eviction can be found here.