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City finally funds tenant relocation assistance, though program’s future remains uncertain

Monday, September 12, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

After leaving the Tenant Relocation Assistance Program without funds for six years, the city has found money in next year’s budget to help tenants displaced because of redevelopment. But without a dedicated funding source, the program’s longevity remains uncertain. 

On Tuesday, city staffers told the Housing and Planning Committee that the $700,000 earmarked in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget will allow the program to get underway sometime next year, following a search for a nonprofit service provider. 

The program aims to help residents displaced by redevelopment find new housing, move and store belongings, and temporarily pay rent. Only lower-income residents (those making 70 percent or less of the median family income, or 80 percent if they live in a mobile home) are eligible. The MFI for a family of four is $110,300. 

The program is part of an ordinance approved by City Council in 2016. The ordinance requires property owners to provide notice of plans to redevelop, demolish or renovate a property well before residents are affected – 120 days for multifamily buildings and 270 days for mobile home communities if at least five households live on-site. The notice period gives tenants time to figure out moving plans and apply for relocation assistance.

Originally, Council had planned to fund the relocation assistance mainly by charging developers a fee. Those plans were stymied in 2017 when the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1449, which prohibited such a fee. 

Amid this legislative challenge and a tight city budget, the city allocated $500,000 to the program in 2019. Then came the pandemic, and the city instead opted to use the $500,000 for emergency rental assistance, given that so many people had lost their jobs and were struggling to pay rent.

Now that the program finally has money, the city plans to hire a third party to handle relocation services. A solicitation process is set to begin next spring, and will likely take six to eight months, meaning tenants will only receive assistance sometime next summer or even later. 

Council members urged staffers to move the process along quickly, given the expected need. “We are at a crisis level when it comes to displacement,” Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said. Staffers said they are spread thin trying to implement other programs but will try to work as quickly as possible.

The main challenge moving forward is funding. The program draws from the Housing Trust Fund, and that money varies by year and is used for multiple purposes.

“We never know, from year to year, how much will be available,” Nefertitti Jackmon, the city’s community displacement prevention officer, told the Austin Monitor, “so without a dedicated source of revenue to support this program, the longevity of the program is undetermined.” 

Though the city cannot require developers to pay a fee to support the program, a budget rider this year from Council Member Kathie Tovo directed staff to study what such a fee might look like. The study will cost $165,000 and take 17 months to complete. If state law changes down the road, the city can create and then easily implement the fee.

Other city relocation assistance is already available for low-income tenants facing eviction through the “I Belong in Austin” program, administered by nonprofit El Buen Samaritano. There is also a smaller fund for tenants forced to leave their homes due to uninhabitable conditions resulting from poorly maintained properties.

Photo by Steve Ryan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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