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Austin Interfaith calls for $40 million in rental assistance

Thursday, May 14, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

At a Wednesday morning press conference, Austin Interfaith called on City Council to increase its rental assistance program by $40 million. The city recently approved a $1.2 million Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants, or RENT program, that’s due to disburse on Friday, but Austin Interfaith points to larger sums spent by other major Texas cities.

“We’ve heard from our member institutions and we’re deeply concerned about those who are most profoundly impacted by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic,” said Rev. Miles Brandon of St. Julian of Norwich and a leader of Austin Interfaith.

“Thousands of families, unable to work during the pandemic, are accruing a crippling debt in the form of back rent and fees and penalties to go with it,” he continued. “That will lead eventually to evictions, profound mental stress and more people left homeless in our city.”

Austin Interfaith cites federal data that says even before the pandemic there were about 70,000 cost-burdened households in Austin. That number corresponds to the number of Austinites who have not yet paid May rent. The first round of RENT funding helped about 1,000 families.

What are the rest of those Austin renters feeling right now? “Stress, pressures, sleepless nights,” said Adell Arce of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. “How would anyone feel on the brink of homelessness?”

Arce used the city of Houston as an example. Its $15 million rental assistance program filled up in a mere 90 minutes. She praised the Travis County Commissioners Court’s Monday action to pledge $10 million in rental and mortgage assistance, but emphasized that it’s not enough for the tens of thousands of Austin families affected.

Because of that action, Travis County residents earning 150 to 250 percent of the federal poverty line are now eligible to receive rental assistance from the county up to three times between now and the end of the year.

“That’s a good start,” Arce said. “As has been shown to us by what happened in Houston, our need is much greater.”

Arce also pointed out that the increase in funds could help not just tenants struggling with back rent but landlords as well. “I think the landlord also has an obligation, if they take this public money, to waive late fees and rescind any notice to vacate,” she said.

The city has so far proposed spending $7 million of its $170 million in federal aid on rental assistance, homelessness assistance programs and child care providers.

Council will discuss the allocation of the CARES Act funding at its next work session on Tuesday.

“I absolutely agree that we need to do more and more,” Council Member Greg Casar said. “I don’t disagree with them at all. I do think it’s important to note that we are in many ways leading the state on the amount of financial assistance that we’re providing to people. That doesn’t mean we’re doing enough – we could do even more.”

He also noted that the RISE Fund resolution Council passed last month included $15 million that helped people who paid their rent with other living expenses. That’s in addition to the $10 million in direct utility assistance to low-income Austinites. Combining those funds, the county’s action and the rental assistance program, comes out to about $40 million in overall action.

“In the end, there’s a huge need out there, and clearly, based on the thousands of calls coming into the RISE fund and the thousands of applications we couldn’t fund, we’ve got to do more. And I think it’s very possible that we’re going to do more than $40 million worth of help to people.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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