With Rent Assistance Funds Spent, Austin Area Advocates Say More Help Needed

Cities and counties in the Austin area have spent millions of dollars in federal rent assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. But with that money largely gone, uncertainty over whether more funding is on the horizon and with many area residents still struggling to pay their rent, local housing advocates say they are concerned about a potential increase in evictions in the coming months.

“Unfortunately, I think we are seeing this huge cliff,” said Juliet Hayes, a paralegal who works with the Texas Tenant Eviction Relief Project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “December, even in non-COVID years, is when requests for rental assistance tend to really increase. I think there has to be something implemented in the long term.

It is difficult to determine the total amount of federal rent assistance that arrived in central Texas, but the state of Texas, as well as a number of municipalities in the Austin area, have received funds from the US Department of the Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The program imposed specific guidelines on cities and counties for disbursing the money, including spending only 10% of the grant on administrative costs, using the money only for renting or helping public services. , and spending 30% of the grant by Nov. 15 – or risk having to return some of the money. The city of Austin, Travis County and Hays County were among 36 other Texas agencies to receive the funds.

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The city of Austin said last month it spent the more than $ 35 million it received to cover rent costs for 8,298 Austin households facing financial pressures over related issues. to COVID-19. According to the city, an additional $ 6.7 million from Austin’s general reserve fund has been allocated to rent assistance.

Travis County has provided approximately $ 10.2 million in assistance to 2,823 households. County officials said they were prioritizing residents of Travis County outside the city limits of Austin who were at risk of deportation due to financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The county said it was closing its nominations portal on Sunday because nominations already underway reached or exceeded the money available.

The statewide Texas Rent Relief Program also stopped accepting claims after distributing more than $ 1.6 billion to more than 275,000 Texas households. Austin, Travis County and statewide funds could reopen for the claims if more money is obtained, but that remains uncertain.

Hays County was one of several entities in Texas that failed to distribute the required amount of money by the US Treasury Department deadline. An audit by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the county spent only 2.4% of the $ 6.9 million it received, and KUT reported that the county was at risk of losing $ 800,000 from unspent funds. The Treasury Department has yet to recover any money, according to county spokesman Kim Hilsenbeck.

As of Friday, Hays County had distributed $ 442,150.24 to people in need of rent relief and utilities – about 15%. Although Hays County received the federal funds in January, Hilsenbeck said the distribution of funds did not begin until the summer, after county commissioners decided to build an internal system instead of hire an outside contractor.

The Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, a nonprofit disaster recovery organization serving Hays, Blanco, Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, managed a previous Hays County rental assistance program funded by 2020 federal COVID-19 relief money that handled the distribution earlier this year. The organization submitted an unsuccessful offer to run the Hays County program again, but ended up working with another organization to distribute rent assistance checks from the city of San Marcos’ CARES law funds. .

Cities and counties in the Austin area have also allocated millions of dollars of their general funds or less restricted grants from the CARES Act to help low-income residents pay their rent, resume past mortgage payments or to cover the costs of utilities.

Williamson County used a portion of $ 8 million of the CARES Act funds to run its own rental assistance program, partnering with four county nonprofits to donate an estimated $ 5.6 million. dollars to 4,923 households, depending on the county.

The Round Rock Serving Center, one of the nonprofits working with Williamson County, disbursed about $ 1.4 million from the county’s CARES law funding for housing assistance in 2021 alone, according to Executive Director Lori Scott.

The Round Rock Serving Center ran a rental assistance program before the pandemic, but could typically only give families about $ 250 per month. With money from Williamson County’s CARES law, Scott said the center was able to give some families $ 1,000 to $ 1,500.

The last federal dollars were spent in November, Scott said, and the center has resumed offering much smaller housing assistance grants.

“People are always in need and people are always asking for help,” Scott said.

Advocates say more help is needed

Housing advocates say it is concerning that several local government entities, including Austin and Travis County, have depleted their housing assistance funds as many people still need help, especially during the holidays. .

Carole Belver, executive director of Central Texas Community Action Inc., said the San Marcos-based nonprofit just wrote what is likely its last rental assistance check last week.

The non-profit organization received the CARES law funding the city of San Marcos for housing assistance and distributed $ 610,495 for rent relief, $ 16,602 for mortgage assistance and $ 16,780 for utility payments. There is still funds available for mortgage assistance, Belver said.

“There is still a need,” Belver said. “I think we really need more rent assistance here for people who aren’t making the kind of money they made before COVID hit, or who have to stay home.”

At Texas Tenant Eviction Relief Project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, paralegal Juliet Hayes helps local residents navigate eviction cases and seek help that can keep them in their homes and out of court.

Although she said that many local rental assistance programs have helped keep many vulnerable and low-income families in their homes, not everyone has benefited. Some undocumented residents or family members with mixed legal statuses were reluctant to provide information to government agencies, and residents with disabilities found it difficult to complete applications. Sometimes the owners just don’t cooperate, said Hayes.

“The majority of (current eviction) cases are non-payment, and there are still so many people who haven’t applied to this program and end up getting kicked out,” Hayes said. “It touched a lot of people, but unfortunately it didn’t touch everyone. Many more people could be accommodated if they knew about these programs.

This story has been updated to reflect the exact number of Texas households that received rental relief from the Texas Rent Relief Program.

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