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October 28 2021 07:00 pm

State of Texas: New election maps draw uncertainty for voters and elected officials

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Texas lawmakers on Monday released their first draft of a new congressional map for the next decade that includes two new districts in Austin and Houston — metropolitan areas with diverse populations which fueled much of the state’s population growth over the past 10 years.

While many incumbents appear safe in these maps, others were drawn into districts that overlap with one another — for example the proposed map pits Houston Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw against Democrat Rep. Sylvia Garcia. It also pits two Houston Democrats — Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — against one another.

The proposed Texas congressional map unveiled by Texas lawmakers would split Williamson County, if approved as is. Currently, Williamson County sits entirely within District 31 and is represented by Republican Rep. John Carter of Round Rock.

The draft map instead carves into the county at its southern border and places Round Rock within District 17, currently held by Rep. Pete Sessions, also a Republican. District 10 and the newly-created District 37 would also cut into Williamson County under the plan.

Former Pres. Donald Trump easily carried Williamson County in the 2016 general election, but Pres. Joe Biden narrowly won the county in 2020.

State legislators are currently redrawing the congressional map, along with state House, Senate and board of education maps as part of the third special session. Texas is set to receive two new congressional seats as a result of the 2020 U.S. Census. Houston is slated for one seat, Austin the other.

Communication and political science professor Dr. Richard Pineda told KXAN while the map appears to strengthen Republican incumbents across the state, proving the lines are drawn for political purposes is always tricky.

“(Republicans have) a little bit of a defense, saying, ‘Listen, you can’t prove that this is gerrymandering. We’re just making adjustments to population shifts,” Pineda said.

KXAN reached out the Republican National Committee for comment on the map.

“Texans are eager to see Republicans win up and down the ballot as Democrats continue to show that they do not care about Texas on issue after issue,” said RNC Spokesperson Macarena Martinez. “The GOP is looking forward to seeing the final maps from the redistricting process and will continue to fight for conservative values across Texas in the next elections.”

Thursday brought the first look at proposed voting districts for seats in the Texas House. Reporting from the Texas Tribune pointed out that the lines in this first plan decrease the number of districts where Black and Hispanic voters hold a majority. That change could lead to court challenges.

In the Austin area, Travis County would go from having six state House districts to seven. Williamson County would see voting lines shift. The biggest impact there is on the district held by Democrat James Talarico. It shifts from leaning Democrat to a district with a distinct Republican majority.

Hays County would be broken up into two districts, with incumbent Democrat Erin Zwiener being drawn into District 73. That district combines parts of Hays with Comal County and has a solid Republican majority.  Zwiener is considered to be one of the most liberal members of the legislature, and she could wind up facing one of the chamber’s most conservative members in the next election.

Republican Kyle Biedermann posted on Twitter that he and his wife own a home in Comal County and hinted that he’s planning to run in the newly-drawn District 73. Biedermann currently represents District 73, but Fredericksburg, where Biedermann owns a hardware business, would no longer be part of that district. The maps place the city into the district currently represented by Marble Falls Republican Terry Wilson.

The maps also put two incumbent Latina Democrats in the same El Paso area district. Lina Ortega and Claudia Ordaz Perez could face each other if these maps hold up.

The maps released this week are the first draft in the process, and some changes are likely. Governor Greg Abbott already hinted that he plans to call a fourth special session for lawmakers to keep working on redistricting.

The first public hearing on the Texas House maps is scheduled for Monday morning.

‘Y’all kept our house’ – Investigation leads to action on delayed rental relief

Jason Belk was in a bind. He’d lost his job at the beginning of 2020, weeks before the pandemic began. As lockdowns led to an economic downturn, weeks of fruitless job searching turned into months with no income.

Belk and his family burned through $40,000 in savings and dipped into their 401K retirement account to stay housed and financially afloat in Leander. It still wasn’t enough. In March, he turned to Texas Rent Relief — a federally-funded state program run by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs that provides rental and utility bill assistance.

It was a rocky and frustrating experience, said Belk, who came close to eviction before finally getting help and a check for more than $19,000.

Belk said he struggled through an “amazingly painful” online application and approval process that took months. His application was initially denied, and he had to file an appeal. It wasn’t until after KXAN began asking the Department of Housing and Community Affairs questions about Belk’s case that the agency gave him final approval and cut him a check.

Belk’s experience is not unique, according to Department of Housing and Community Affairs complaint records obtained by KXAN. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Texans have struggled to get payments.

The Rent Relief Program launched in mid-February and quickly learned its software was inadequate and difficult to use. The agency swapped software a month later. Most original applicants then resubmitted their applications in the new system, creating duplicate applications that have been an “ongoing challenge,” according to Department of Housing and Community Affairs Senior Communications Advisor Kristina Tirloni.

Jason Belk and his family pictured here. They spent months waiting on rental assistance through the statewide program, after he lost his job and they struggled to pay their bills. (Photo provided by: Belk family)
Jason Belk and his family spent months waiting on rental assistance through the statewide program, after he lost his job and they struggled to pay their bills. (Photo provided by: Belk family)

Each month since March, the department has received a steadily increasing number of complaints about the rent relief program. Most of the complaints focus on application and money disbursement delays.

One July complainant said they were “approved for rent relief for months no payment.” Another complaint received that month said the applicant was “unable to get answers or assistance.”

“No response to my application submitted March 13,” said another complaint submitted July 30.

Responses to complaints show department workers trying to escalate dire issues and explain the problems with the application system and customer service.

“First, we apologize for the long wait times and unresponsiveness. We are working with the call center to improve and continue to hire more staff to meet the need,” one worker responded in June.

Despite the rough start and escalating complaints, at a national level Texas’ rent relief program is outperforming nearly every other state, according to federal records. According to an August New York Times report, Texas has been one of the more effective successful states in getting money out to stressed renters.

“Per recent U.S. Treasury reports, Texas is currently leading the nation among state rent relief programs in dollars spent and is number two in the nation for percentage of award spent,” according to Tirloni, who also said Texas was one of the first states in the country to begin accepting applications.

Tirloni said the Department of Housing and Community Affairs is proud of the program’s success. On Sept. 22, TDHCA had disbursed $800.5 million in rental and utility assistance to 136,131 households. One day later, on Sept. 23, the total disbursed rose more than $10 million and 438 additional houses. The program received $1.17 billion overall to spend, leaving roughly 31% of available funds unspent, according to the Texas Rent Relief data dashboard.

“The demand for our program is strong and we are continuously working to streamline our operations and processing times to serve more applicants in a shorter time,” Tirloni said in an email. “Having said that, TDHCA and Texas Rent Relief staff realize the work isn’t done. … Many Texans still need our help. We’re committed to getting assistance out the door and into their hands by daily working on program improvements.”

Also, as of Sept. 23, there are more than 17,933 households approved for assistance but their payments —totaling over $92.5 million — are still “in progress,” according to the website.

Mary Jo Schoppa appears to be one of those people approved for a check but still waiting.

While applicants like Belk have waited for the program to help with their own rent, Schoppa said she’s watched the application process play out from the opposite angle.

Schoppa, a real estate agent, manages three commercial properties and 12 residences. She collects rent checks, and she’s been waiting months for one tenant’s checks to be paid through the rent relief program.

Schoppa said the tenant’s rent assistance application was approved by the program in late June. The money was supposed to be disbursed, yet nothing has come.

Real estate agent and property manager Mary Jo Schoppa speaks outside at a park bench with KXAN about her struggles with the Texas Rent Relief Program
Mary Jo Schoppa, a Georgetown real estate agent and property manager, said one of her tenant’s has struggled to receive payment from the Texas Rent Relief Program and could face eviction. (KXAN photo)

There’s one phone number to call, and “you can’t get through,” Schoppa said. “You could stay on hold for a few hours, if you had the time.”

Tirloni said the Department of Housing and Community Affairs would not comment on individual cases. Processing times have varied with the shifting volume of applications, federal requirements and the program’s capacity, she said.

The average time for an applicant to receive payment is about 62 days, Tirloni said in an email on Sept. 17. In most cases, payments are issued within two weeks of an approval notification.

While Schoppa waits for a $5,740 check, the property’s owner in California isn’t receiving rent that’s due. Schoppa has worked with the tenant, but the situation may result in an eviction if the money doesn’t come through.

“I’m going to have to give her notice to move out, if I can’t get any rent,” Schoppa said. “If she can’t pay, and the state won’t pay for her, I can’t continue to have her as a tenant.”

Tirloni said applications are reviewed in the order they arrive. However, applicants receive priority if they are experiencing an eviction and have a court docket number, or if there’s been a utility disconnection. Eviction diversion and utility disconnection cases are processed in 32 days, on average, she said.

To get help with your application, the program recommends applicants call 1-833-989-7368.

A nationwide halt on evictions ended Aug. 26, after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium was found to be illegal without congressional approval, according to Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Fuchs said it seems unlikely Congress would approve a moratorium, but in Texas the State Supreme Court recently renewed its order on the Eviction Diversion Program through December 1. That order “provides that the courts must discuss the Eviction Diversion Program with tenants in nonpayment of rent cases and inquire whether the landlord wants to participate. If so, the eviction must be abated for 60 days,”

With the end to the CDC’s national eviction moratorium, the “bottom line” is that renters need to get these assistance checks faster, said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin.

MORE: Lawmakers attempt to revive nationwide eviction moratorium

Linares-Moeller said Austin’s rental assistance program has largely been a success, helping more than 6,200 households this year. Other programs have struggled, she said.

“They got such a large amount of money quickly, and then they were supposed to put it all back out again, and they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to do that,” Linares-Moeller said.

“Think about all of those complications in terms of the amount of information that the federal government was requesting, and then the timeliness of how fast you had to give it to them,” she said. “And then their processing time to get the money back out to you and or to your apartment complex manager.”

Children in need of at-home health care face shortage of caregivers

Health care workers and patients who need at-home care are asking for $412 million of the state’s $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief, pointing to dire staffing shortages worsened by the pandemic.

“I’m here today, because my daughter is sitting in a hospital at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, because the private duty nursing situation in Texas is failing her,” Brian Broadbent said outside the Capitol Tuesday.

His 5-year-old daughter Emma depends on a ventilator and needs at-home nursing, but her family has not been able to find one.

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“We’ve been trying to hire a nurse for 16 weeks — have not had one single application. And when we went to the hospital last week, we sat in the ER for 21 hours, 12 hours waiting for a room,” Broadbent explained.

All at-home health care sectors report staffing shortages right now, ranging from attendants to developmental services like speech therapists.

“I’ve told the mother of a 10-week-old infant who can’t swallow that we likely won’t be able to see their child for another four months,” Houston speech therapist Vicki Gilani said Tuesday. “Since when is it okay to deny someone access to medically necessary care for the ability to eat for four months?”

Unlike hospitals and nursing homes, the home care industry has not received any relief from the state.

“I’m with Angels of Care Pediatric Home Health, and we service seven states in the U.S. right now. And every other state that we’re in has provided COVID relief for home care. Texas is the only one that has not,” Kristen Robinson, who also serves as president of the Texas Association for Home Care and Hospice, said Tuesday.

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“Overall for our agency, we were able to staff around 90% of the hours that were authorized. And since all of the COVID effects have hit us, we’re running about 50 to 60% of staffed hours,” Robinson explained.

That’s why the association is asking state legislators to carve out some of the federal COVID relief money for home care agencies.

“With this funding, we can ensure adequate supplies of PPE for staff and families. And we can offer competitive employment opportunities for nurses and therapists that have currently left home care for more lucrative positions in the hospitals or even traveled positions outside of Texas,” Robinson said.

Dina Abramson has had an attendant helping her for the past 20 years and says she’s noticed the impact of the shortage.

“I am very fortunate that my disability is not as severe as some other people. I’m pretty independent, but all of these extra shifts are taking a toll on her,” Abramson said, explaining her current attendant is being stretched thin.

“Other attendants just aren’t showing up. Sometimes they are able to get somebody, but that person doesn’t do a good job. And so the client will call my attendant and say, you know, somebody came and worked for me, but now I can’t reach things that I need, or they didn’t put my clothes on. She’s very dedicated, and she doesn’t want anybody to be uncomfortable or to not have what they need. So she goes and helps,” Abramson said.

Abramson said she wishes more Texans would realize how desperately the industry needs help.

“I think it’s very important to emphasize, unfortunately, that anybody is one step away from being in this situation. You have a stroke, you have a heart attack, you have some sort of accident where you lose an arm or a leg or something. Everybody needs to think about and work towards, because it can happen to you, or it can happen to somebody that you care about,” she said.

Backlog leads to month-long wait for car title appointments

In the middle of the week, the line at Travis County’s main tax office does not look long.  Everyone inside is seated in one of the chairs spaced six feet apart inside the lobby.

But the line to get a title transfer or to get a Texas tag in Travis County is thousands of names long. Routinely, only one date is available for an appointment listed on the county’s website. The earliest available date is usually more than a month away.

It was a problem for Carole Carlos, who moved to Austin from California in early August. Her California tags were set to expire soon after she arrived. Unlike those who are trying to renew their registration, Carlos has to come to the office in person, because this is her first time registering a vehicle in Texas.

“Every time I went on to look there was nothing available. I called because I don’t know what to do. It’s going to expire,” said Carlos. “They said to keep checking every day.”

The pandemic has created a collision of issues for the Travis County Tax Office. At the start of the pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott waived certain vehicle registration, titling and parking placard regulations. Abbott said then, the move would help “Texans avoid unnecessary crowds and in-person contact without fear of being penalized.”

“That was a good thing. We didn’t want people wandering around when they didn’t need to,” said Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant.

But when the waiver expired in early April 2021, Elfant says all at once it had more than a years’ worth of people coming in to do paperwork. Initially, the office had a backlog of 300,000 titles and registrations that people had not done in the previous year.

Vehicle registration waiver ends April 14, TxDMV urges people to renew before then

“We still think that we’re probably 60,000 backlogged with registrations, and we still really don’t know how many titles are backlogged,” said Elfant.

The 60,000 vehicle registrations the office estimates it still needs to do, does not account for those who are new to Texas and are required to come in person to begin processing their registration. Elfant says staffing shortages are also crippling the agencies’ ability to cut through the backlog. The office has resorted to outsourcing some of the processing work for dealership titles to Lubbock County.

But, law enforcement has resumed ticketing for expired registration and title violations. The Austin Police Department said last Thursday, it had not directed officers to show leniency on expired registration, titles, or expired driver’s license violations. Though, Elfant says his office is now in the process of drafting a letter to law enforcement about the backlog at the tax office.

“We’re in the process of getting a letter out to all regional law enforcement here in Travis County to apprise them of what the situation is, and really encourage them to give people some slack during this period where we’re so backlogged,” said Elfant.

Since April 2021, when the waiver was lifted, APD has issued more than 200 tickets for expired registration violations, according to Austin Municipal Court records. They have issued zero tickets since then for title-related violations. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office has not yet provided data on how many traffic violations related to registration and titles have been issued this year.

While those who are new to Texas and those who need title transfers still must make appointments to be served – several of the services can be assessed without ever coming into the county tax office. Vehicle registration renewals can be done online or at H-E-B grocery stores. There are also private title companies that charge an additional fee to process title transfers.

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