Words by Josue Ramirez

Edited by Jose Jimenez & Gisela Zuniga

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The effects produced by the COVID-19 pandemic have only further highlighted the nation’s shortcomings in too many ways to count. As we know, the current cases of COVID-19 still make our region a national hotspot, even with the already high rates of infection throughout Texas. To prevent further impact on public health, a nationwide halt on evictions was set up until June 30th of this year by the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, Texas courts and landlords have found a way around this, so renters face even more challenges to finding affordable and stable housing.

RENTAL INSTABILITY

Even with the eviction moratorium many residents are at the mercy of their landlord’s threats. Andrea Aguirre has rented her apartment in Pharr, Texas for over eleven years, “without missing a payment, without any problems.” That is until March of 2020 when her daughter, the family’s main source of income, became ill with Covid 19. She subsequently lost her job. Aguirre describes the months in theri ceaseless search for emergency assistance as sad and stressful. The different programs had varying requirements which made it difficult for her to apply. In addition she was caring for sick family members. Her father lost the fight against the disease in June and her sister succumbed four month after. “It was a difficult year,” she mentions somberly.  

Through La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), Andrea connected to cdcb and was informed about the Tenant Based Rental Assistance available with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. The housing program provides eligible applicants with three months of rental and utilities assistance with an opportunity to reapply for an additional round if needed. Andrea applied in November of last year and received a check for her landlord in early 2021. When it came time to reapply, hearing back from the state took longer than expected.

Despite the rental moratorium and her plea for an extension, the management company began the legal proceedings. “I was in contact with them, in constant communication about my situation in the nicest way possible. They even signed off on the rental assistance application,” she mentions. Andrea received an Eviction Citation from the Hidalgo County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace with an order to appear in court in March. 

“I showed the judge the check, the rental assistance application signed by the landlord, the paperwork from the lawyer and he said I was fine. He would reschedule me for another date.”

Andrea Aguirre was taken to court despite the National Eviction Moratorium.
The citation cites the temporary halt in evictions.

She grew anxious about the long wait for housing assistance and even more so for the pending court date. Ms. Aguirre calmed her worries by preparing herself. She sought legal assistance from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) and days before her court date, the rental assistance check arrived in the mail. In her court appearance, “I showed the judge the check, the rental assistance application signed by the landlord, the paperwork from the lawyer and he said I was fine. He would reschedule me for another date.” The presiding judge cited the national moratorium to her landlord and  ruled in her favor, preventing her family’s eviction. 

This moratorium however does not address all of Ms. Aguirre’s or other renters worries. For example they are still responsible for back rent through payment plans. Renters are also not protected from evictions from other residential complaints. Many do not know about the emergency protections and decide to move when they are presented with an eviction notice. While the moratorium was a step in the right direction in providing relief, it is only temporary and not an all-encompassing measure or deterrent against evictions and the displacement it brings to those affected.

Last December, come dream. come build. (cdcb), a private, non-profit housing community development organization based in Brownsville, Texas, released the Cameron County Eviction Fact Sheet. This fact sheet analyzed how the eviction moratorium had “not slowed the rate of Cameron County eviction filing as intended.” Despite the halt in evictions enacted in April, almost as many eviction petitions were filed in Cameron County in 2020 compared to 2019. Cdcb’s data shows that in the past year there have been a minimum of 96 successful evictions in the county although the number “is likely in the hundreds.”

As eviction numbers rise so likely will the amount of COVID-19 cases. In many instances throughout the Valley, evictees will often find refuge with relatives, but this “doubling up” in households increases the potential of the deadly virus transmission among family members, which can prove fatal for older individuals residing in intergenerational homes. This also adds another layer to the problem: the invisibility of the Rio Grande Valley’s housing affordability and eviction crisis.

Bandit sign located on University Drive in Edinburg.

HOMEOWNER PERIL

Since the majority of individuals technically remain housed, the issue does not manifest in the manner it does in larger cities with encampments or temporary housing shelters. Yet, the visual signs of displacement are in plain sight, materializing as scattered corrugated signs throughout the right-of-ways of busy intersections all along Rio Grande Valley cities reading something along the lines of, “WE BUY HOUSES CA$H, accompanied with a local phone number.

Known as “bandit signs,” they are an illegal guerrilla marketing tactic used by real estate investors and house flippers. These cheap signs are not edgy promotional tactics; but rather litter public areas as annoying visual noise and are cues to predatory practices, a hurting housing market, and ineffective policies that in turn translates into countless families losing their homes and thus  becoming further displaced. These signs and the subsequent business practices they hide are dangerous because they normalize violent market patterns and make invisible those who are truly impacted by foreclosures and evictions. 

Homeowners impacted by the COVID -19 pandemic find themselves in a current financial uncertainty which enables all-cash institutional buyers to take advantage of these legitimate fears. The bandit signs flood already concerned and cash-strapped residents with the message that others are in the same situation, and that solutions are available only a phone call away. In other cities, these individuals and phone numbers have been traced to shell companies for outside investors looking to scam homeowners and make a quick buck off their unstable situation. Throughout this unprecedented pandemic, these  bandit signs have  appeared more and more, due in part to working-class households feeling the pressures of income loss, the lack of access to federal aid, and slow congressional action.

The situation leaves many homeowners in an unaffordable and unsustainable living pattern, offsetting housing costs to deal with other urgent issues. According to the ATTOM Data Solutions, Q3 2020 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report, the metropolitan statistical area of McAllen-Edinburg, Texas had the highest foreclosure rates. One in every 1,134 housing units had a foreclosure filing. In addition, from 2011 to 2020, the median sales price in the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA increased from $101,300 to $173,000 or a 70% difference, according to the Texas A&M Real Estate Center. 

When compared to other metropolitan areas in the state, homeownership in the Rio Grande Valley is high and home prices are substantially lower. To outsiders and individuals in higher income brackets, this creates a false impression of an accessible and affordable housing market, – a myth of affordability. Despite this popular narrative, life in the Rio Grande Valley is not affordable to everyone, and that is because housing affordability depends on a home’s price and the buyer’s income. The cost of homes has increased, but the income of those in the region has not done so at the same rate. The median income in the Brownsville-Harlingen area is $37,900, much less than the state average of $64,800. Even before the pandemic, communities like those found within the Rio Grande Valley were plagued by higher -than -average rates of evictions, an increasing housing cost, and persistent poverty. The region’s housing challenges have lingered for years and the effects of COVID-19 will likely cause them to continually worsen.

DISPELLING THE MYTH

While the cultural and social capital of the region provides shelter to family members and loved ones in need, it reduces the visibility of the issues of evictions and displacement. The lack of visibility allows for the “Myth of Housing Affordability in the Rio Grande Valley” to endure and the problem to continue, unaddressed in policy and public services. To combat the visual signs of displacement and bring attention to much needed solutions to the foreclosure and displacement problems in the Rio Grande Valley, I partnered with cdcb to launch a creative intervention. Through the multidisciplinary work titled, The Myth of Affordability (RGV), bandit signs across the Rio Grande Valley were repurposed to build a 3D structure of a home in a neighborhood in downtown Brownsville, Texas.

The idea for the intervention was to make visible the effects of the current housing market and foreclosures. The found objects and the reusing the bandit signs, usually meant to remove people from housing instead building the house itself, adds to a sculpture that embodies the irony in these signs. The installation is an ode to the self-help style of architecture familiar to the border region where families build their homes piecmeal, with a variety of materials and at their capacity. The installation is a reference to the working-class rasquache aesthetic of “making do despite of” and celebrating everyday objects and the cotidian experiences of the Latinx diaspora. More importantly, it is a call for collective action for homeowners, renters, and all levels of legislators and policymakers. 

The Myth of Affordable Housing (RGV) hopes to shine a light on potential solutions to the local housing inequality, now made even worse because of the pandemic. During a virtual roundtable with housing advocates, private developers, and the public, held earlier this month by cdcb, advocates highlighted the urgency of continued and additional federal assistance as the CDC’s Eviction Moratorium Extension looms to an end on June 30. In Texas, the mandate to follow this order expired at the end of March, so now only the federal government, and not the local or state courts of Texas, can enforce the eviction moratorium. According to Zoraima Diaz-Pineda, cdcb’s Director of Policy, in the region, “59 percent of households didn’t have enough savings to cover three months worth of expenses should they experience a financial emergency or an economic shock. The pandemic has proven to be a prolonged economic hardship which many of the families we serve are still recovering from.”

While bandit signs are used everywhere and not unique to the RGV, they are some of the more visible signs of displacement here. Seeing them as red flags and as the visual representation of a hurting housing market of cost-burned residents, can help us see past the myth of local affordable housing, especially as massive corporations like SpaceX moving into the area will make these inequalities that much greater.

Find the CDC Eviction Protection Declaration here.

For legal assistance for renters visit TRLA

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