On Tuesday, May 5th, the University of Texas (UT) Center for Community Engagement hosted a virtual COVID-19 Housing Equity Clinic as a part of its recently launched Community Housing Hub program. The Housing Hub works with neighborhood residents to address inequitable social and political practices that may lead to community displacement and/or disruption. Collaborating with UT faculty and local housing advocates, members of the Housing Hub host workshops related to tax information, homestead protection, low-interest loan applications, deed transfers, and other related topics. Austin Justice Coalition, BASTA, UT Law School Representatives, Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, Austin Revitalization Authority, Fair Play Property Tax, and the Travis County Tax Office were among the organizations in attendance at the clinic’s virtual gathering.
After welcoming attendees into the tele-town hall, Kendra Garrett of Austin Justice Coalition opened by discussing available funding sources for rent, mortgage, and utilities assistance. Among several different sources Kendra mentioned, the COVID-19 Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund is meant to provide one-time payments to Austin/Travis County residents affected by the pandemic. The Fund totals $15 million and is available to those who have experienced significant hardships, and are ineligible for other forms of government relief (such as the CARES Act or Unemployment benefits). The funds are being distributed by local organizations throughout Austin and Travis County, such as the Austin Area Urban League, Asian Family Support Services, El Buen Samaritano, and Catholic Charities of Central Texas. For additional information about the RISE fund please visit the City of Austin website here.
A member of Volunteer Legal Services, Johnathan Buck, also provided detailed information about eviction protections during the pandemic. For residents who do qualify for the CARES Act Properties (e.g., Section 8 or federally subsidized housing), eviction notices cannot be served until July 25th, and landlords must allow tenants 30 days to leave the property (August 24th) following that date. If you are unsure if you live in CARES Act property, check the National Low Income Housing Coalition database. Johnathan also reminded viewers that eviction hearings were to be paused until June 1st, even for properties not covered under the act. If a landlord violated these orders, they may be subject to a ticket by the Austin Police Department. Please contact 311 or BASTA if you have been or are being subjected to illegal housing practices. A panelist also provided information about appeals processes if you were to lose an eviction hearing after the moratorium had ended. Refer to the PowerPoint linked below for additional information on the subject.
Additionally, Heather Way—a faculty member at UT Law School—provided valuable information about foreclosure protections. Homeowners struggling with maintaining mortgage payments during the pandemic may be eligible for forbearance up to 360 days without penalties, fees, or additional interest. This assistance is available for those individuals or families with federally-covered mortgages. Around 70% of homeowners in the nation are covered by these foreclosure protections. To see if your mortgage qualifies, visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Heather also advised homeowners to take advantage of local mortgage counseling services that will help with budgeting, loss mitigation options, and assistance eligibility.
Relatedly, Greg Smith, Bruce Elefant, and Baxter Trabold informed viewers about property tax protections to consider during the pandemic and thereafter. As one viewer pointed out, property taxes have increased in Austin’s gentrifying eastern corridor and other neighborhoods throughout the city. In response, presenters advised residents to contact mortgage lenders regarding tax deferral options amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, a panelist reminded home buyers who owned their residence as of January 1st to apply for homestead exemptions through the county tax office. Similar exemptions also apply to senior citizens (or surviving spouses), and individuals with disability(ies). Lastly, homeowners also have the option to protest their tax appraisal via mail or online if they feel there is a discrepancy in their home valuation.
Following these presentations, viewers asked a variety of different questions related to monetary assistance, taxes, or eviction processes. This provided space for several critical questions to be answered, as well as an opportunity for community members to share resources with one another. For example, neighborhood residents shared resources about the Austin Energy Plus 1 Program for utility assistance, and senior citizen tax breaks (see Texas Tax Code Section 31.035) through volunteer services. The panelists were able to answer most questions and provided numerous links and forms for future reference—many of which are included in this recap.
Find the PowerPoint slides with complete information from each presentation related taxes, monetary assistance, eviction protections, and more, here. The UT Center for Community Engagement looks forward to continuing to support our local neighborhoods and residents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and well thereafter.
List of Resources
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau-Mortgage Ownership
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau-Mortgage Relief
Free & Low-Cost Legal Services
Texas Access to Justice Hotline – (888) 988-9966
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide- Austin Office, (512) 374-2700
Organizations in Attendance at Housing Equity Clinic