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In the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the risk of mass evictions prompted the federal government to appropriate a historic amount of funding to help state and local governments maintain housing for low-income tenants. In two installments, cities and counties across Texas received nearly $1 billion in rental assistance, an unprecedented sum.
But much of that money had a deadline by which it had to be spent. A report released on Tuesday by Texas Housers, a housing policy and advocacy group, found that emergency rental assistance programs across the state varied widely in their success in distributing these funds – resulting in the loss over $30 million in aid when the federal government took it over. .
The report, which examined 10 of 37 local rent relief programs that emerged in cities and counties across Texas, found that staffing shortages, political opposition from local authorities, lack of experience in the management of emergency relief programs and the general distrust of immigrant communities in government outreach has impacted the success of some programs in getting relief money to tenants and to owners during the pandemic.
“We found that the local context played a huge role in the ability of local jurisdictions to administer this money,” said Erin Hahn, research analyst at Texas Housers, author of the report. “Small counties that had no experience administering aid or accessing partners struggled for months to get money.”
The Texas Housers study compared programs in the cities of Dallas, El Paso, Houston and Laredo, as well as Cameron, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Travis counties.
Texas has distributed $983 million of its nearly $3.4 billion in federal emergency rental assistance funding to cities and counties so they can funnel funds to renters and landlords. Many local officials responsible for distributing these funds had never administered anything similar before, especially on this scale, and had to create programs entirely from scratch with little guidance.
This has limited the effectiveness of some programs to get money out quickly, Texas Housers found.
In Hidalgo County, along the US-Mexico border, it took about four months for federal funds to start flowing. The program eventually had more than $10 million—about 20% of its funding—taken back by the US Treasury Department for not spending it quickly enough. These funds were distributed elsewhere.
Jaime Longoria, executive program director for the county, said part of the challenge was overcoming the region’s large immigrant population’s mistrust of government programs, particularly if they had to submit paperwork. to participate.
Knowing this, the Hidalgo County ERA program did not require people to submit official documents when applying for assistance. But it still took months to slowly build trust — a hurdle shared between border towns and counties with large immigrant populations, and for which the federal government has provided no additional guidance or wiggle room. .
“We had many families who said they were afraid it would come back and affect their citizenship status later, someone knocking on their door in the night,” Longoria said.
As the news spread, the applications started pouring in, but not fast enough. In January, funding for the program was cut as it hit its stride, Longoria said. He appealed the decision to the Treasury Department, but was denied.
“We struggled along the border to gain traction with people, and [our applications] peaked three or four months after everyone else,” Longoria said. “Once they started trusting us, it became a different story.”
Other locations struggled with staff shortages, making it difficult to quickly sift through thousands of applicants. In Hays County, between Austin and San Antonio, fewer than 10 people — including part-time students — were busy processing applications, creating a months-long backlog, the report said.
Political opposition has also crippled the program, according to the report. Rather than follow Treasury guidelines, which encouraged programs to make it as easy as possible to apply for aid and let applicants self-certify that they were in need, the Hays County Auditor required additional documents that slowed down the process, such as a government ID card of each adult in the household instead of just the applicant, proof of financial hardship, and documented risk of homelessness.
As a result, the Hays County program struggled to get up and running. It took more than five months for the money to start reaching tenants and landlords.
Frustrated by the hurdles imposed by the Hays County Auditor and its limited staff capacity, ERA program director Wesley Matthews resigned in January.
Eventually, the federal government clawed back $2.6 million — or 37% of the program’s funding — because the county didn’t spend it fast enough. Meanwhile, hundreds of people faced eviction in Hays County. About 30 evictions were filed each month in 2021.
Matthews said at the time that the loss of those funds hurt “the whole community,” KUT reported. “We should fight like hell to keep him here,” he told the news agency.
Sam Benavides of Mano Amiga, a San Marcos advocacy group, said many eligible people had their applications closed for minor documentation issues or no explanation.
“It’s free money from the federal government, it costs the county nothing, and they still haven’t been able to get it to people who need it,” she said. “It’s so disappointing that they let that money go to waste.”
This problem has plagued the smaller and more conservative parts of the state examined in the report. Cameron, Hays and Hidalgo counties, as well as Laredo, lost $17 million for missing spending deadlines.
The larger cities analyzed in the report, by contrast, had more experience running these types of programs and often had larger networks of community organizations to help process applications and contact tenants and landlords. Rather than losing money, major programs in places like the city of Dallas and Travis County, which includes Austin, received additional infusions after exhausting all of their initial funding.
The City of Houston and Harris County, which combined their rent relief funding into one program, stood out for how effectively they delivered money to tenants and landlords, according to the report. Just three months after receiving its first infusion, the program had spent all of its money and eventually received an additional $30 million to keep it going.
Houston and Harris County benefited from an already strong network of community organizations and their experience distributing CARES Act funding earlier in the pandemic, the report said.
That helped address some issues by the time ERA funding flowed, said Leah Barton, a consultant who helped run the Houston and Harris County program.
Today, protections for tenants from eviction have long lapsed, federal rent relief funds have dried up, and evictions are back to or above pre-pandemic levels in many parts of the state.
“Whereas [rental assistance] absolutely helped families and landlords, there are still too many people for whom housing is not affordable, as you can see in our eviction rates,” Barton said. “It’s always a problem.”
The Texas Housers report encourages local leaders to document and preserve the bonds formed for the next time an emergency like this arises, and to use their momentum as the basis for other housing initiatives, such as providing a right to an attorney in eviction court, which several locations around the state have successfully piloted and built new affordable housing.
“No matter where jurisdictions started when the emergency rental assistance arrived, they are all better off now for the future,” said Hahn, the report’s author. “We really encourage them not to let this go to waste.”
Lucy Tompkins works for the Tribune as a housing and homelessness reporting editor under the New York Times Headway Initiative, which is funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as fiscal sponsor.
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