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Travis County bush

As federal rental assistance deadline looms, county must use it or lose it

Wednesday, August 25, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court is scrambling to spend Emergency Rental Assistance Program money before a federal Treasury deadline threatens to reclaim the funds. According to Treasury policy, municipalities must return rental assistance money to the federal government if 65 percent of the funding is not allocated by the end of September.

Lawrence Lyman brought commissioners up to date about Health and Human Services’ efforts to administer the money.

“We are now up to 4,500 applications received. In the last week, we had 167 new applications. We are hopeful that we are getting to a sustainable pace that will easily get us to meet our expenditure benchmark by the end of the month,” he said.

“It seems like we have five weeks left to get to 65 percent, and if my math is right, we’re not going to make it at the current rate,” County Judge Andy Brown said. “So it looks like we need to accelerate the rate by a decent amount if we are going to.”

Lyman told commissioners HHS is deploying a number of tactics to spend money faster, including using self-attestation forms and direct attendant payments to expedite payment processing for at-risk families. (According to the Treasury’s website, self attestation is a way to make sure that all those who qualify for assistance receive it: “Treasury guidance has indicated that written attestation is an appropriate means for satisfying documentation requirements for ERA.”)

Commissioner Brigid Shea asked whether the organization would likely meet the 65 percent September deadline, while Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion wanted to know about potential oversights, in terms of ways HHS is using money.

“I know that we have crashed resources and brought people in with the necessary skill sets to address the needs of our constituents. Have we missed anything? Is there something else that we can do to reach more people?” Travillion asked.

Lyman assured commissioners that HHS was exploring every avenue “that funders will allow.”

“Getting the 65 percent target is not the end point. That is just the first step. It’s not a static situation. We’re going to continue following up on the directions you both laid out, commissioners, in terms of how we better align with the other players in the space,” he said. “There is also a second round of funding that we will be dealing with from the city, county and state.”

Lyman said the money being spent on assisting the displaced residents of the Rosemont apartment complex had not been part of the calculations so far and will help the county get “over the hump,” in terms of spending. “We’re pretty good, we think we’re on target and we’re still trying to take extra steps to move things along,” he said.

Citing Treasury recommendations, longtime advocate Zenobia Joseph mentioned to commissioners the possibility of transferring county grant money to the city to serve the same constituents, should the county fail to administer the aid in time.

“I just ask the county to be proactive and ask Treasury that if, in fact, Travis County does not extend their funding, whether it would be okay for the city of Austin to then receive that money, because it’s a contiguous jurisdiction and would still provide for the people in need in that area,” Joseph said.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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