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County invests in nonprofits and cash assistance to prevent evictions

Thursday, January 27, 2022 by Seth Smalley

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court approved a series of investment strategies to prevent evictions and smooth the potentially rocky transition away from the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance program to other forms of rental assistance.

“The key questions today, court members, are the strategy to provide eviction support … keeping in mind that cash rental assistance is an eviction prevention – and then also, how do we transition from the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program?” said Sherri Fleming, county executive with Health and Human Services.

The conversation came following the final days of ERAP, a well-funded federal program whose end likely spells a tough transition for the hundreds of folks who counted on the assistance. Now, commissioners are scrambling to find other ways to continue aid and prevent evictions, looking specifically to two other federal sources: the Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Austin Tenants Council and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid are two programs county staff recommended to fund (and commissioners approved).

Austin Tenants Council would continue much of the same work it’s already engaged in, such as helping tenants apply for assistance and relocation funding, outreach to landlords with tenants who qualify for assistance, and mediating evictions between landlords and tenants. ATC will receive almost $300,000 over two years, while Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid will receive $1 million over the same period.

TRLA would be able to administer more attorney representation, intakes and case evaluations, as well as help tenants negotiate with landlords.

Kirsten Siegfried, another HHS division director, explained staffers’ thought process behind keeping the qualifying income threshold for assistance at 250 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, or $32,220 for a single adult, as opposed to 150 percent.

“The vast majority of the households that we provide assistance to still fall at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines. So considering the small impact on the budget and the ever-increasing cost of living in Travis County, we recommend sticking with 250 percent,” Siegfried said.

Although 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines is a markedly higher threshold than 150 percent, it adds a relatively small number of program participants, making it a low-cost safeguard for the county. The threshold for the ERAP program was more inclusive, by comparison, at 80 percent of the median family income, or $55,400 for a single adult.

Staffers initially presented two options to fund county rental assistance, one option accounting for just one month of payments to applicants, the other accounting for two. Each option was unaffordable drawing from the General Fund alone.

Commissioners eventually passed another option, to account for three months of assistance for those who will need it by using Local Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars to fund what the General Fund can’t, though the specific details are still up in the air. They also voted to fund both the Austin Tenants Council and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

“I think three months makes sense … I’m okay with taking it out of LFRF,” County Judge Andy Brown said.

“I will support it, but I want it to also be made really clear that this is for a point in time. We literally cannot afford to extend it at this level of funding going into some indefinite future,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

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

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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