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A rush of applications for housing help forces Travis County to close its program months early

Thursday, March 17, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Following what one official described as an “absolute deluge” of interest, Travis County says it has stopped taking applications for a program to help people make their rent and mortgage payments.

The county had nearly $9.2 million in federal and local funds to help people making below a certain income pay for housing. Staff opened the program on March 1, and said they would stop accepting applications at the end of September or once the money ran out.

Staff closed the program late Tuesday, just two weeks after it opened.

At a meeting last week, staff said they did not anticipate to be so inundated with applications.

“That’s an extremely large number of applications to have received in such an extremely short period of time,” Kirsten Siegfried, division director at Travis County Health and Human Services, told county commissioners. “This is a brand-new environment.”

The county which encompasses most of Austin received about 4,700 applications, with more than 3,300 households applying in just the first week. For comparison, roughly 950 people applied over a span of six weeks to an earlier iteration of the county’s rent assistance program.

The rush of applications for the county’s program comes amid a dearth of other government housing aid; while Texas has opened a mortgage assistance program, both the state and the city of Austin have closed rent assistance programs after running out of money earlier this year.

Staff last week also attributed the interest, in part, to the historic growth in housing costs in Austin and Travis County.

“I think what is really happening here is a housing crisis that has been artificially suppressed with the various eviction moratoria for the last two years,” Siegfried said.

Travis County and Austin officials adopted bans against most evictions during the pandemic, but those orders expired at the end of last year. As renters contend with a historic rise in rents, the rate of eviction filings has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with landlords filing more than 200 evictions a week.

Siegfried told commissioners last week that the county will prioritize getting rent payments to people currently facing eviction. She also noted that many people who have not needed help paying for housing in the past are now showing up in the county’s applicant pool.

“We have a lot of applicants who have never applied for assistance from the county before,” she said.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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