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Why Travis County is struggling to spend its federal rental assistance dollars

Tuesday, August 31, 2021 by Nina Hernandez

As we spoke by phone this week, Rakhi Agrawal glanced down at the stack of papers on her desk. “My eviction notice – it’s right here on my desk,” she said.

It’s been a long journey for Agrawal, who moved to Austin to work in nonprofit development, to arrive at this eviction notice.

At the onset of the pandemic, in March 2020, Agrawal lost her job. Unable to find another position, she applied for unemployment and Texas SNAP food benefits. That qualified her for rental assistance through the city’s Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants program, which paid her rent through the end of 2020.

But then in January, her troubles really began. With her circumstances unchanged, Agrawal reapplied to the city program. But even after making multiple calls to follow up on her application, she received a rejection letter saying she hadn’t responded quickly enough to the program’s request for documentation.

Dismayed, she applied to the state-run Texas Rent Relief Program and the Travis County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. But before she could secure funds from either program, her landlord sent an eviction notice. Agrawal sought loans from friends to pay the balance, and moved out in order to avoid the eviction.

She now awaits an answer from the county as to whether she can obtain future assistance.

As reported last week, Travis County is scrambling to spend 65 percent of its federal assistance funds before a federally imposed deadline. County Judge Andy Brown and other commissioners questioned how the county could increase the pace at which it is disbursing the funds.

It’s not just a Travis County problem. Molly Jensen, executive director of the Austin Tenants Council, said the county is in the same situation as most municipalities that are trying to distribute the remaining $45 billion in rent relief and eviction protection funds designated by the federal government.

About 89 percent of federal rental assistance funds are still unspent, according to a recent New York Times report.

“Most (municipalities) are having a really hard time,” Jensen said, “because there’s been an underinvestment in housing relief nationally for many, many years, and there’s been a massive underinvestment in eviction protections.”

That created a situation in which municipalities with limited staff and outdated technical infrastructure were inundated with an unprecedented level of funding and requests at the same time.

The result was confusion for applicants, a scramble by county staff and a lack of outreach to the individuals who need help the most and are unable to easily navigate the county system.

But there are ways to get the money out faster. Jensen pointed to the city’s RENT program as an example. While the county used its General Fund to pay out assistance last year, the city of Austin created its own process, and revamped it with each application cycle.

The city also worked with partners like the Austin Tenants Council to do direct outreach to individuals having a hard time navigating the online system. Translators on-site helped applicants who spoke a language other than English. While the system wasn’t perfect, Jensen stressed, the city has made real strides over the past year in establishing the necessary infrastructure to carry out the task in the time allotted.

So why isn’t the county able to replicate the city’s results?

“A lot of the folks need additional support to access the application process,” Jensen explained, and Travis County just doesn’t have the staff to facilitate that.

As hard as the process has been, Agrawal is grateful that her previous experiences as a first-generation college student, a teacher in underserved communities and a community organizer helped her navigate the bureaucracy.

But what about families without internet access, or those with no experience filling out applications online or people who don’t speak English?

“They should be meeting us where we are,” Agrawal said. “It scares the sh*t out of me. How are they navigating this system?”

One reason the city has been more effective at outreach, Jensen said, is because it realized if it didn’t hit community centers and other gathering spots, “a lot of folks don’t know that it’s there.”

Jensen said many renters calling the Austin Tenants Council live in the county and were ineligible for the city’s RENT program. Many aren’t aware that Travis County has a separate rental assistance program for which they do qualify and are guided to the application page by the Tenants Council staff.

She recommended to the county team that it reach out to the city team overseeing the distribution so it could share some outreach tips. She said there’s a congressional effort to persuade the federal government to extend its deadline in light of the fact that many of the municipalities had to create these programs from scratch. Another issue has been the difficulty of tracking down the required documentation and allowing time for staff to process it. The programs are beginning to accept self-attestation letters, which should further streamline the process in the near future.

All of this is happening as a national eviction crisis looms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the Centers for Disease Control does not have the authority to enforce an eviction moratorium without congressional action, and so the protections – which were already unevenly enforced across the nation – end as a surge of eviction cases head to the courts this fall.

City residents have local protections that have minimized evictions during the pandemic in comparison to other large Texas cities. The current rules ensure that renters who are three months or less behind on rent can’t be evicted (if the rent is less than $2,475 per month), require landlords to apply for rental assistance before proceeding with eviction, and give Covid-impacted renters a 60-day grace period to pay back rent.

Asked to comment on the situation, Travis County’s Public Information Office referred the Austin Monitor to a briefing during today’s meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court. Commissioners will hear about the county’s overall Covid-19 response, and should get answers to questions they asked last week about how the county can speed its pace of disbursement.

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

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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