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Travis County likely to close housing assistance program months early after ‘deluge’ of applications

Wednesday, March 9, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Travis County last week reopened a program with millions of dollars in funding to help people make their rent and mortgage payments. Initially the county said it could accept applications through September, but staff members now say they will likely close the program this month because they’ve received so many applications.

County Commissioner Brigid Shea called the pace of applications an “absolute deluge.”

At a meeting Tuesday, staff attributed the large interest in the program to rapidly rising housing prices.

“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,” said Kirsten Siegfried, division director of Travis County Health & Human Services.

Officials did not set a hard deadline for closing the program to applications, but instead decided to cap the number of applications at 4,500. They expect to reach this number in the next several days.

On March 1, Travis County announced it was making available about $9.2 million in federal and local funds to renters and homeowners who had fallen behind on their housing payments. If they met federal income qualifications, people could apply for up to three months of assistance. The county has run a program like this for years, but has been operating a Covid-specific program for the past two years.

The news came amid a veritable desert of aid for people who had fallen behind on housing payments. Currently, rent help programs from the state and the city of Austin are closed after both jurisdictions ran out of money over the past few months.

County staffers said they expected being able to cut checks to about 3,400 households and would accept applications over a seven-month period, or until the money ran out. After the county received 3,356 applications in just one week, it appears the money will be spent much faster than anticipated.

“This is just a brand-new environment,” Siegfried told county commissioners. She said the county did not see such a demand for help when it offered several rounds of rent assistance funds during the pandemic. “(During those programs), we did not get 3,000 applications in three days, which is essentially what happened here.”

Staff blamed, in part, the historic rise in rent and home sale prices in the county. According to the Austin Board of Realtors, the median sales price of a home jumped 28 percent in 2021, while rent prices rose at the fastest rate ever recorded.

Siegfried also noted that federal and local eviction bans have ended. In December, Travis County and city of Austin officials let bans expire that had been in place for much of the pandemic. Since then, the number of evictions filed by landlords against tenants has surged in Travis County, according to BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action), a local nonprofit that is tracking the numbers.

Siegfried said eviction bans may have, until now, kept at bay the effects of an ever-worsening housing crisis.

“I think probably if we hadn’t had these eviction moratoria we would be seeing a huge number of evictions regardless of the pandemic because that was the trend we were headed in,” she said.

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

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