Before the coronavirus pandemic thrashed the country, Maria Ramirez and her husband made plenty of money to afford their modest two-bedroom apartment in northeast Dallas.
Now they owe more than $4,000 in back rent and late fees.
Ramirez and her husband, both Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission, lost work during the shutdown and were unable to pay rent this spring. They fell further behind this summer when they began paying rent for Ramirez’s parents, who were both sick in the hospital for weeks fighting COVID-19.
They applied for aid without success.
With tens of thousands of similar stories across North Texas, housing advocates are worried that money set aside by the state and local governments to help people pay for housing is not reaching the most vulnerable.
There is a patchwork of programs with inconsistent criteria and awards, advocates say, and the application process is onerous. Plus, demand greatly outpaces the money available.
What’s more, advocates are worried that millions of dollars will be sent back to Washington because local and state governments will not meet the Dec. 30 congressional deadline to spend the money.
“When people can’t pay their rent, there are all sorts of consequences,” said Josephine Lopez Paul, the lead organizer for Dallas Area Interfaith, a nonprofit that advocates for working families. “We should feel shame that we’re not able to meet the tremendous amount of need in our city. It’s becoming a shell game of shifting pots of money.”
The interfaith group estimates as much as $20 million of the city’s rental assistance programs, which first began in April, has not been spent.
“For four months, millions of these funds have wafted around the corridors of City Hall while each day vulnerable families are threatened with evictions,” said Jon Lee, a retired pastor of King of Glory Lutheran Church, demanding the city ease restrictions and get money to residents now.
City officials acknowledged the rollout of the programs has not been perfect but said every penny earmarked for rental and mortgage assistance will be spent. And they said the application process was an attempt to balance urgent needs and protect tax dollars.
“We’re expecting all remaining funds will be out by Dec. 10,” said David Noguera, the city’s director of housing and neighborhood revitalization.
And yet, when Lee Kleinman, who represents Far North Dallas, tried to reallocate an additional $2 million to housing assistance programs at a November City Council meeting, the city’s chief financial officer advised against it. She said there was a sense the money could not be spent in time.
The money went to a business loan program instead.
Ramirez’s apartment, which costs $885 a month, has been the family’s home for a dozen years.
She has filled the apartment with family photographs and mementos. Above the unused fireplace is a single lit candle and framed portraits of dead relatives, watched over by a wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the coffee table is a photo of her receiving a blessing from her grandmother the night before she left Mexico for the United States. And on a nearby bookcase, there is a portrait of St. John Paul II and the rainbow bouquet of metallic flowers that Ramirez used two years ago when she and her husband renewed their wedding vows.
When her adult daughter and grandchild needed a place to stay as the economy cratered, the family purchased two more couches to serve as beds and crammed them into the living room. Six people, including Ramirez’s two other children, 13 and 8, now live under the same roof.
They got by through those first few months with the help of friends and their church. But after Ramirez’s mother and stepfather became ill with COVID-19 — her mother was so ill she was placed on a ventilator — the financial burden became too much.
Ramirez applied for assistance with Catholic Charities, which was helping multiple cities distribute aid, in June. But it took several weeks to get all the necessary paperwork, including a letter from her employer that she was out of work as a contract house cleaner.
By then, it was too late. The program Ramirez, who has paid federal taxes since 2006 using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, was eligible for had run out of money.
The news that there was no help for the family could not have arrived at a worse time: Ramirez contracted COVID-19 herself from trying to help her parents. She locked herself in one bedroom while the rest of the family commingled in the other bedroom and living room.