Texas Eviction Diversion Program aims to keep people in homes during pandemic

Justices of the Peace in Dallas County were briefed Thursday on the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, an effort to keep people in their homes and off the streets.

While some advocates have mixed reviews on the state effort to ease evictions, for anyone facing an uncertain future it could be the help they need.

"My cleaning business went under first and I went to find a job and then that’s when I got COVID-19," said Shaunte Banks.

It was a double pandemic whammy for the single mother of five who is now three months behind on rent and facing eviction.

"It’s very hard to catch up," Banks said. "I don’t get Section 8. I was paying rent out of my pocket."

By some estimates, 1 million Texans are at least one month behind on rent.

President Joe Biden, by executive order, extended the federal evictions moratorium through March. Then, courts will hear eviction cases again.

But some landlords argue their needs should not be ignored either.

"We have a lot of people depending on us. We have staff maintenance crews, we have mortgages we need to pay, we have taxes to pay," said Hudson Henley, Henley Properties.

That is where the Texas Eviction Diversion Program comes in. Real estate attorney Rachel Khirallah calls it kind of like mediation for tenants and landlords.

"If the landlord and the tenant do come to an agreement, then the eviction is actually dismissed so there would never be an eviction on the tenant’s record," Khirallah said.

Judges who handle evictions now have to make notifications about the state program.

"This program actually satisfies both parties, in a sense, because it actually does pay the rent up to six months to the landlord," said Judge Katina Whitfield, Justice of the Peace, Place 2, Mesquite.

"If you've gotten some help from other rental assistance programs, that reduces the number of months you can get through the diversion program," said attorney Mark Melton.

He and a small army of lawyers are working pro bono to help more than 5,000 tenants fight eviction since the pandemic began nearly a year ago.

"You also can’t apply for it unless you've actually been sued for eviction. So it doesn’t allow you to do anything proactive to try to take care of the issue before the landlord files an eviction case against you," Melton said.

Banks hopes there is some help for her until she can help herself again.

"I don't intend on sitting here not paying my rent, nor do I like the feeling of not being able to pay my bills," she said.

The State of Texas has earmarked $165 million for the program.