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‘A big deal’: Austin approves $15 million relief fund that includes cash assistance for residents

Friday, April 10, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin City Council members have approved a $15 million relief fund to aid residents affected financially by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think this is a big deal and I’m really proud of this council,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said before the vote Thursday.

The money will be funneled through nonprofits, some of which have existing contracts with the city. Council members are asking that half the $15 million be used to help nonprofits meet increased demand for services they currently provide, such as help for survivors of domestic abuse, rental assistance and food access.

Some social service providers have reported a spike in demand; El Buen Samaritano told KUT it has seen a more than 400 percent increase in weekly visitors to its food pantry.

The remaining money will be available from the nonprofits for one-time direct cash payments to residents, through either a debit or credit card.

While the organizations doling out cash assistance would decide who qualifies for the money, Council members asked that they prioritize those who do not qualify for assistance from the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill, such as people who are undocumented.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents Northwest Austin, said the measure was “filling a gap.”

“We’re really looking to see the folks who aren’t going to be accessing those (federal) resources,” he said.

“Please help the immigrant community here in the shadows,” Marilu Fructuoso said via telephone, through a translator, during public testimony. She thanked Council for representing undocumented people. “With this proposal we could get some help to make payments. … It would help me be able to breathe a little bit easier.”

Council members also asked that low-income households get first dibs – in this case, a family of four making less than roughly $52,000 a year.

At the time of the Thursday afternoon vote, the city could not say which social service providers would get the cash or how the money would be divvied up; Austin Public Health would make that call.

Stephanie Hayden with Austin Public Health said the city would be sending out more information Friday on eligibility and how people can apply for the assistance. A letter sent to Council members Thursday from various civil rights organizations, including Grassroots Leadership, urged the city to make sure one-time cash payments do not come with guidelines and that families are able to allocate the money as they please.

One hope is that the $15 million reaches recipients in time to cover May rent. Although the state has put evictions on hold and Austin has passed additional protections for renters, all rent owed will eventually come due. A national group representing apartment owners found a 10 percent uptick in the number of renters who were unable to pay April rent this year over last year.

But City Council may be cutting it close. Garza said Austin Public Health expects it could take up to three weeks for some nonprofits to receive the aid money. It could take longer, she said, in cases where the city has to write a new contract.

On Tuesday, a consultant gave Council a somber outlook for Austin’s economy, estimating nearly 25 percent of the region’s workers could be without work. Such unemployment rates would mirror those seen during the Great Depression.

The $15 million aid package will come out of the city’s reserve funds, which function much like a savings account. Current policy is to keep those funds at 12 percent of the city’s operating budget; the city’s savings exceed that mark by about $25 million.

It’s likely the city will be reimbursed, at least in part, by the federal government.

“Right now, as we understand the rules, 75 percent of eligible expenses will be reimbursable,” Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, told KUT. He said that is standard repayment for federal disaster relief funds.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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