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County processes final rental assistance applications, but will need more money to prevent evictions

Thursday, January 13, 2022 by Seth Smalley

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court received news that only 443 applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program – a recently discontinued county program – have yet to be processed, a number significantly down from last week’s 995. The rest, according to county Health and Human Services, have already been paid.

The new number, explained Lawrence Lyman, division director for HHS, arrived after county staff did a bit of number-crunching.

“Just to clarify, more than half of what we thought were the approved but not yet paid applications for rental assistance have been paid,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “We thought it was 995, now it’s 443.”

“That should mean we’ve cut in half the remaining potential liability, which would be good news, because we were looking at $2 million in the red,” Shea continued.

Lyman agreed that the number was much better for the county this week. HHS staff additionally recommended maintaining the level of income eligibility at 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, and to raise the level of rent assistance from current fair market rents (which are based on a metropolitan area from San Marcos to Round Rock) to average Austin rents.

“We fear that, in our current housing market, many landlords would prefer to evict a tenant than accept assistance that’s, on average, 21 percent lower than what they can and do charge,” said Kirsten Siegfried, director of the Family Support Services Division. Siegfried added that 75 percent of the county lives in Austin and pays Austin rents.

HHS estimated that continuing rent relief at recommended levels would cost the county $1.1 million per month, or about $9 million from February till the end of the fiscal year. However, the General Fund balance for rent and mortgage assistance is only $4.5 million, leaving a $4.6 million shortfall.

“So we are looking at an additional need of $4.6 million,” Siegfried said. “And PBO (the Planning and Budget Office) really wanted me to make sure it was understood that no source has been identified to find that $4.6 million.”

When Shea asked if they were using a methodology that includes payment of three months of back rent, Siegfried confirmed that’s how HHS arrived at the $1.1 million calculation.

“This is the most cost-effective way to substantially prevent evictions,” Siegfried said.

County staffers are currently looking for a funding source to cover the $4.6 million disparity.

“To prevent eviction, we will have to look at a higher level of investment,” County Executive Sherri Fleming acknowledged.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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