The Texas Rent Relief program paid the wrong landlord, and this Plano family got evicted
More than 165,000 Texans have been helped by the state’s $1.9 billion rental assistance program that launched during the pandemic, but people have “slipped through the cracks,” advocates say.
The night before he was evicted, Jared Brown was frustrated, sad and anxious. That last one was a new feeling for him.
“Usually, I'm the one with the answers, with the plans. Well, I don't have an answer. I don't know. This whole situation is just really screwed up,” the 36-year-old Brown said.
He was scheduled to be evicted, even though the state had paid out almost $9,000 on his behalf to help his family keep their home. It felt “surreal,” he said.
What he didn’t know at the time was that the $1.9 billion Texas Rent Relief program had made an error, and his landlord was unaware he’d even applied for assistance.
So Brown was working at a furious pace, trying to sell some belongings online and pack up the rest of his stuff before the constables came in the morning to kick him out.
“It sucks, but there’s nothing I can do but pack it up and move along,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do, no amount of yelling or screaming or anything I can do to make it stop.”
Brown lived in a one-bedroom apartment at the Aspire Independence apartments in Plano for five years with his wife and their dog. A few years ago, his uncle moved in with them, along with his dog. The 63-year-old has severe disabilities that have rendered him unable to work.
The pandemic has been especially difficult.
Brown lost his job managing a restaurant early in the pandemic. His wife, Kayla, also lost her restaurant job.
A couple months later, Brown’s father died unexpectedly from chronic health issues. Brown became the primary caretaker for his mother, who also has disabilities and is largely homebound.
Brown has made some extra cash selling thrift store and garage sale finds on eBay, and there was unemployment insurance before it ran out. But that was only enough to cover food, gas, medicine, and other basics, he said. The $845 monthly rent went unpaid for over a year.
“I tried saving for rent, but I just couldn't. There was no way,” he said.
Kayla Brown has been looking for work as the economy recovers, but hasn’t found a job yet. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen significantly in Texas, it’s still nearly 60% higher than it was pre-pandemic.
Jared has been too busy with caretaking responsibilities for his mother and uncle to look for a job. He’s had to navigate the legal and financial questions left after his father’s death, and help his mother sell her house, which she could no longer afford.
From breathing easier to ‘a nightmare’
When the Texas Rent Relief program opened in February, Brown applied quickly. A few months later, in June, the state told him they’d send his landlord nearly $9,000 to pay his back rent.
He’d finally caught a break.
“I thought, OK, I can breathe a little easier, I don’t have to worry about getting evicted next month,” he recalled.
Then a Collin County constable knocked on his door.
“I had an eviction notice,” Brown said. “The same day the funding was dispersed [by Texas Rent Relief], I got the eviction notice.”
It was baffling. When he went to court in July, he said the landlord’s lawyer had no idea he’d been approved for rental assistance. The judge said his paperwork to receive rent relief was in order — it checked out.
Brown left the court feeling confident.
In August, another court hearing was scheduled, but Brown says he never received the notice to appear, so the justice of the peace evicted him by default. By the time Brown found out that he’d lost his eviction case, it was too late to appeal.
“It’s like a nightmare,” said Kayla Brown.
On a September morning, the Collin County constables knocked on their door again. This time, it was to evict them.
A crew from the apartment complex went to work, carrying the family’s belongings down the stairs and piling them on the grass. They hauled out furniture and lamps, boxes of books and kitchen items, black trash bags full of clothes — a growing pile of a life upended.
In the middle of the Browns’ nightmare was a mystery: How could this be happening?
Ally Harris started working on Brown’s behalf after he received his eviction notice. She manages the eviction prevention program for Texas Housers, a non-profit focused on low-income housing policy.
“When I started pursuing this case, I was certain at the time that it was a case of landlord fraud,” Harris said. “Jared’s landlord kept saying that they weren't paid and [the rent relief program] kept telling me that they were paid.”
Harris soon learned the cause was much more mundane.
The landlord is a California-based private equity company, Clear Capital LLC.
Jeff McMullen, a vice president for the company, was equally baffled when reached by KERA the day after Brown was evicted. The company has been trying to work with all of its tenants throughout the pandemic to apply for rental assistance and avoid evictions, he said.
“We do it really reluctantly, it's not the outcome that we want,” he said.
McMullen said the company had no record that Brown had applied. The rent relief program notifies landlords when their tenants apply for rental assistance. They have to agree to the terms of the program before the money is released, including that the renter no longer owes the back rent and will not be evicted.
Clear Capital was never notified that Brown had applied, nor had the company received any money to pay Brown’s past-due rent.
“If there was a mistake, we want to make it right,” McMullen said, but he was confident there wasn’t.
After the eviction, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) began looking into the situation. TDHCA is the department charged with overseeing the state’s rent relief program.
Eventually the department realized there’d been a mistake. The money was sent to the wrong landlord, a company based in Austin that has nothing to do with Brown’s apartment complex.
“As much as we work to prevent and reduce potential mistakes, application processing has the potential for human error. In this case, incorrect information made its way into the application process,” said Kristina Tirloni, a spokesperson for the department. “We wish it didn’t happen.”
The department is reviewing exactly how the error occurred and is working to get the $9,000 meant to help Brown returned to the program. But there is little the agency can do to help Brown and his family now.
Slipping through the cracks
The rent relief program’s rules mean that Brown isn’t eligible for that $9,000 anymore because he’s already been evicted. Rental assistance funds can only be applied to the past-due balance of tenants who are still living in the apartment where they missed rent.
Harris, the advocate from Texas Housers, said it’s impossible to know how many tenants have lost their homes because of clerical errors or even landlord fraud in the program, but she’s heard of other cases.
“How do we remedy harm for tenants who have slipped through the cracks?” she said. “Right now, the policy just seems to be like, ‘Well, that was an accident. That's an anomaly.’ But those are still people.”
Since the eviction, Jared Brown and his family have been searching for a permanent place to live. They’ve been staying with Jared’s mother in the house she’s sold. They’re helping pack and will move soon.
“It’s been an adjustment, a crazy adjustment,” he said. “We're all doing as well as we can, you know?”
There was some good news recently.
After learning about the mistake at the rent relief program, Jeff McMullen from Clear Capital LLC said he wanted help. He's working out a plan to make sure Brown and his family find a place to live. The company also has their legal team working with Brown to clear the eviction on his record.
Clear Capital has also started checking with rental assistance programs before evicting tenants in any of the six states where they own rental properties, to avoid another situation like this.
In the meantime, Jared Brown is trying to keep everything — and everyone — together. He said the whole process has left him feeling disheartened with a safety net that was supposed to support people like him who were struggling because of the pandemic.
“It just kind of leaves you feeling helpless, a little more untrusting of the agencies that are there [to help],” he said. “Just stressed, worrying about everything.”
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Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at email@example.com.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.
Brown said he’s glad for the landlord’s “unexpected” help regaining secure housing and finally getting rental assistance, but he’s also lost most of a month’s income from his online re-selling business because of the erroneous eviction. He wonders how many others have been wrongly evicted.
“How many people out there didn’t even know to say anything, haven’t even filed a complaint, that…just give up?” Brown wondered.