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OPINION

Editorial: Texas renters are finally getting a lifeline. If only it came sooner.

By American-Statesman Editorial Board

One in three Texas renters recently told the U.S. Census Bureau they had little or no confidence they’d be able to cover their February rent. That’s nearly 1.7 million Texas households living on the brink.

Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic that has pushed millions of Texans out of work, Gov. Greg Abbott this week announced a massive statewide program to help tenants who can’t cover their rent. We applaud the scope of the Texas Rent Relief Program, which is expected to distribute more than $1 billion in federal funds to help an estimated 80,000 households that might otherwise face homelessness. The aid is sorely needed. We only wish it had come sooner.

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At left, Lyndsay Hanes, president of Metric Property Management Company, helps Kathy King, an apartment resident in the Dryfield Drive neighborhood, apply for rent assistance from the city, Wednesday, Sept., 9, 2020. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

As we noted last August, Texas needed a plan to avoid a swell of evictions and displacement during the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes. Local communities, such as Austin and Travis County, stepped up by putting a good chunk of their federal CARES dollars toward rent relief programs. Those efforts helped 4,300 Austin renters — and their landlords — alone. But Texas did nothing similar on a statewide scale.

That’s changing now, with the latest federal coronavirus relief package providing $25 billion specifically for emergency rental assistance programs around the nation. Larger Texas communities, including Austin, plan to administer their own share of the latest funds. That leaves the state with about $1.3 billion to help other renters across Texas.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has taken a solid first step, creating a single statewide portal for rent assistance applicants — an intuitive approach we wish the state had taken with vaccine distribution as well. Texans can find details about the rent relief program at TexasRentRelief.com, and starting Feb. 15 they can submit applications through that website.

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The state must provide a robust outreach effort beyond that, as census estimates suggest one in six Texas households lacks Internet access. TDHC should promote the program with landlords, utility companies and nonprofits that might encounter tenants who need the aid. The agency should also track, and post on a public dashboard, the demographic data on aid recipients, such as race, language spoken and geographic area. Such data would help officials and the public see whether the program is successfully reaching all of the groups who need the help.

With members of Congress now discussing the scale of the next COVID relief package, the arrival of the Texas Rent Relief Program underscores just how critical such federal aid is, and how life-changing it can be for the families who receive it. We wish Texas had launched a statewide rental assistance program months ago. But we’re glad it’s finally getting off the ground now.