Wednesday May 13th, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns
On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the $10 million award for direct rent, mortgage and utility assistance. Rental assistance will be available to residents of Travis County.
This one-time cash assistance was supplemented by a budget transfer of $2.4 million to the county’s emergency assistance program to offset the pre-Covid funding shortfall. The budget transfer will be an ongoing source of financial assistance for county residents seeking assistance with rent or mortgage payments and represents a 355% increase in funding. However, the county will have to use the $10 million in rental assistance funds taken from its $61 million allocation under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act by December.
To ensure funds are fairly distributed and stretched as far as they can go, Kirsten Siegfried, director of the county’s Family Support Services Division, said the Department of Health and Human Services has expanded eligibility requirements.
People earning 150-250% of federal poverty income guidelines now qualify to receive housing assistance up to three times by December 31. Travis County traditionally limits its housing assistance funding to once a year.
In addition, the county will provide assistance of up to 100% of the fair market value of the rent determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Typically, the county only provides assistance for 50% of the fair market rental rate.
As the county normally operates a rental assistance program, this $10 million will supplement the existing fund that provides grants on an ongoing basis. Eligible residents can apply through County Health and Human Services website.
To supplement the rental assistance program, county staff have offered to allocate $250,000 in utility assistance to Travis County residents. Currently, the county provides up to $235 a year to residents who need help paying their utility bills. However, under this proposal, that figure will increase to $1,500 and the aid can be used twice in the months leading up to December 31.
Siegfried told the Court of Commissioners, “We do not believe we will have to rely heavily on county funds for utility assistance.” She explained that in addition to the relief Austin Energy provides its customers, the county’s utility assistance program is able to tap into eight separate funding sources outside of federal emergency assistance.
Although the county pledged $10 million in rent and utility assistance, community members came to the May 12 meeting to encourage the commissioners to provide greater support.
Susan Oram of Central Texas Interfaith urged the court to work to provide $40 million in rental assistance. As proof that $10 million from Travis County won’t be enough, she pointed to other major Texas metro areas, like the City of Houston and Harris County, which together have allocated nearly $30 million in aid. rent, and the $23.7 million from the City and County of Dallas.
Diana Ramirez, director of the Department of Economic Development, said the county’s new emergency fund spending consultant, Guidehouse, advised Travis County not to commit to spending more than 20% of its federal allocations. . The county has already earmarked $10 million for a small business grant program and this additional $10 million in rental assistance will mean the county has committed a third of its dollars to the CARES Act.
Nonetheless, Ramirez called the $10 million handout “a drop in the bucket” to address the need for assistance in Travis County.
Commissioner Brigid Shea noted that this need for housing assistance is not exclusively a symptom of the greater economic damage the pandemic has caused to the economy. In December, she said there was already a “tsunami of need” for assistance. This $10 million will only temporarily address the increased urgent need for emergency rental and mortgage assistance that the county already projected a shortfall of $2-3 million in 2020.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the Rental Assistance Program will be available to all Travis County residents. Photo made available via a Creative Commons License.
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