FWD>DFW: President Joe Biden signed an order on Jan. 20 asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to extend the federal eviction moratorium through at least Mar. 31. That’s good, right?
Ashley Brundage: Yes, that’s good. It’s important to keep people housed and off the streets right now, but we have to couple that effort with rental assistance. We can’t just continue to allow people to not pay rent and not get evicted. Landlords have bills and staff to pay, as well as property taxes. There are a lot of things that depend on rent getting paid. And there are a lot of people who aren’t accessing rental assistance because of the moratorium. Once the moratorium ends, though, families may find that they owe thousands upon thousands in back rent. So we need both.
FWD: Just how bad has COVID-19 impacted housing in D-FW?
AB: The pandemic made a bad situation even worse. Before the pandemic, before the economic crisis, we already had a housing crisis in D-FW. We already had a shortage of affordable housing and 4,500 homeless people on the streets or in shelters. Close to half of households didn’t have money set aside for emergencies. The job loss driven by the pandemic has worsened all of that.
Data from November suggests that in the D-FW area, upward of 316,000 households weren’t able to pay their rent and were at risk of being evicted. Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance saw 165 new people entering the streets each month from January 2020 to September 2020.
FWD: What has United Way put in place to help ensure housing stability and support the community through the pandemic and even once we’re out of it?
AB: We look at housing stability as the base people need to be successful in education, income and health — what we consider our building blocks of opportunity. Pre-COVID, we were approaching the housing issue as a continuum. We were working at the end where people are homeless and at the other end where we need to increase affordable housing. COVID forced us to hit pause on the affordable housing piece of that and focus more on keeping people housed where they are right now. We won a contract with the City of Dallas with some of the CARES Act funds they received — actually three contracts and a fourth that’s about to start — totaling $5 million last year and $11 million this year. We pulled together the Dallas Rental Assistance Collaborative to help us get that money into the community and stabilize families as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Through this collaborative, we are able to secure funding to launch the next iteration of this work: the Targeted Eviction Prevention Program. We’ll partner with Child Poverty Action Lab and CitySquare and potentially others to design a program to target apartment complexes in South Dallas where we see high rates of eviction and student mobility. We can help stabilize those families through rental assistance, financial assistance, legal assistance, and community support that gets them connected to child care and workforce development.
Another collaborative we launched during this period is the Eviction Prevention Task Force. In November, when we were seeing the moratorium coming to an end with no relief in sight, we pulled together a coalition of people interested in addressing that problem as soon as possible. Nonprofits, City Council members, faith leaders and business leaders all came to the table with solutions for getting rental assistance into the hands of families who needed it as fast as possible. We also looked at shelter space. If we were going to see a wave of evictions at the end of December, where would these people go? Emergency shelters in Dallas and Collin counties are already full, and we had to come up with some innovative response to that. Luckily, the moratorium got extended, but the task force is still working.
One other problem we’ve identified during this time is a gap in getting information to the communities who need it most. Most people are relying on digital forms of communication right now, and if you don’t have the technology or aren’t following the right accounts, you’re just not hearing about rental assistance or where things stand with the moratorium. We have a group who is working to find better and different ways to share that information — and share it in ways that are easier to understand.
FWD: How do people apply for rental assistance?
AB: They can go to unitedwaydallas.org/rental-assistance to see a list of the agencies we’re working with. From there, they can go to the application site of the organization they want to work with. Once they fill out an application, the organization will follow up with them.
FWD: How many people have been helped by this coalition thus far?
AB: We served 1,844 households through the end of December, which exceeded our goal. We just got approval last week to move forward with an additional $1.3 million to provide assistance, and there’s an additional $10 million going for City Council approval next week. That sounds like a lot, but it’s still not enough. It may allow us to serve about twice as many households as last year. With the new relief act that’s been passed, we can provide a family up to 15 months of rental assistance at $1,500 a month.
FWD: What’s on the radar that will have a longer-term impact on homelessness and affordable housing?
AB: There are two bills around anti-voucher discrimination going up to the Texas Legislature this session. One is coming from Sen. Royce West that will provide protection for voucher holders. A second one is by Houston-area Rep. Jon Rosenthal; it will remove a preemptive law passed in 2015 so that cities and counties have more flexibility about how they can enact discrimination rules. We’re going to watch those both closely.
I am also excited about the new White House administration. There is a new director coming over too. I think Marcia Fudge is going to be an exciting new leader of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I think she’ll make some changes we desperately need in the affordable housing and homelessness space.
FWD: What can people do to help right now?
AB: United Way is accepting donations to go toward the rental assistance program. The dollars we’re receiving through the federal government that flow through the city allow for only 10% of the funding to be put toward staffing, so there’s a real gap in providing the staff to manage the program. There aren’t enough people to process applications in an efficient manner because of a lack of dollars related to salaries. So, we’re currently accepting contributions to supplement staffing.
Then there’s the Targeted Eviction Prevention Program, which I mentioned earlier. It’s being funded through private dollars, and we’re accepting donations for that.
Additionally, we’re working on developing volunteer opportunities for people who want to volunteer in a safe, socially-distanced way. We’ve partnered with Unite the Church to develop scanning stations where people can fill out rental assistance applications in person and scan the documents they need to submit with their applications. What we know is that many people don’t have the knowledge or technology to take care of these things from home. Unite the Church will set up stations across D-FW to allow for volunteers to help with that process in person.