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About 9,000 low-income residents have applied to have rent or mortgage paid through the City of San Antonio’s housing assistance program during the coronavirus pandemic, but some housing advocates are concerned that the City’s process takes too long and leaves some residents behind.
Once a complete application for the grant is submitted, it can take up to 30 days for a landlord to receive payments, but often takes one to two weeks, City officials told members of a City Council committee Monday. Those residents also qualify for fuel and utility assistance including internet bills.
Tenants should be given money directly, said Debbie Hernandez, a community organizer for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
“[City] employees have gone above and beyond trying their best,” said Hernandez, adding that RAICES has been working closely with the City to connect their clients to the program. “[But] the system is not the right system for what we need during this pandemic and to support these struggling families.”
Despite tenants clearing paperwork hurdles, she said, some landlords can’t or won’t accept the money.
“These landlords, you have to understand, a lot of them aren’t claiming the rentals that they’re renting out, they don’t have city code-compliant [buildings], they don’t want to be found out,” Hernandez told the Culture and Neighborhood Committee. “There’s a lot of reasons why these landlords are not cooperating.”
The Council committee reviewed implementation plans for portions of the COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan that was approved by Council last week and allocated $50.5 million towards housing initiatives, $4 million of which will be used to establish a digital and in-person housing resource center online.
After a months-long moratorium, eviction hearings regarding nonpayment issues started up again on Monday and some expect to see a wave of evictions and newly homeless families. The City and County have deployed teams to meet with families facing eviction during and after these hearings to connect them to assistance programs.
The 9,000 applications represent $21.5 million of the $25 million set aside in late April for the program. An additional $25 million from the City’s recovery plan that uses federal relief funds will help another estimated 10,000 to 12,000 families. On top of utility assistance provided for in the housing assistance program, the City has partnered with Family Independence Initiative to provide 2,000 vulnerable families with $500 monthly payments.
Roughly 3,000 applications were briefly stalled in the housing assistance system due to a lack of response from landlords or miscommunication regarding the process, said Veronica Soto, director of the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
That doesn’t mean those landlords didn’t want to participate, Soto told the Rivard Report. Many simply didn’t see an email asking them to become vendors.
“We have cleared most of that backlog” by paying landlords on behalf of renters, she said.
Those completed applications, however, were not “stalled” as they were approved or will be approved within the 30-day window of processing, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston clarified on Tuesday. “The 3,000 number represented the number of applications that were being processed for payment and it was a mix of tenants and landlords as vendors.”
Through the City’s accounting system, vendors – individuals or entities that receive payment – have to fill out an application to get money. Previously, landlords had to become vendors in order to be paid while a renter filled out an application to the program. Two weeks ago, the City started designating the renter as the vendor and remitting rent payments on their behalf.
“[It is a] much easier process and more expedient,” Houston said Monday. “Moving forward we are going to automatically process the applicant as the vendor.”
If someone is eventually evicted, Houston said, the City’s displacement mitigation fund can also be used to help relocate tenants to a new place.
Some of the money cannot be sent directly to residents as it must follow federal allocation rules, but Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) asked City staff to look into more flexible funding sources such as the City’s general fund.
“We want to keep people in their homes, and we’ve got to do everything that we can,” Treviño said. “I do support this idea of direct assistance … to make sure that most of the funds are not so restrictive.”
But once that money is given to a tenant, there are no guarantees that they will use it to pay rent, Councilman John Courage (D9) said.
“I’m leery about giving just cash,” Courage said. “Because we just don’t know how that cash is going to be used. We can assume they will pay what they owe. … They could also decide they are going to use it for a car payment.”
If an applicant makes less than 80 percent of the average median income, roughly $72,000 for a family of four, the maximum amount of rent the City pays them in total is $3,500 and $1,500 for utilities.
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“We can partner with other nonprofits and other city programs to help,” Houston said. “We will need to address these on a case-by-case basis. However, we can consider increasing the max if necessary. The Right to Counsel Program can also help negotiate down the outstanding amount.”
Next week, City Council will vote on a long-awaited notice of tenant’s rights program that will require landlords to send out information about the eviction process and housing assistance programs when initiating an eviction process. Failure to provide the informational packet would result in a fine of up to $500. That program is slated to start in August pending Council approval.
Under requirements listed in a City of San Antonio news release, residents are eligible for housing and utility assistance if they meet the following criteria:
- Are the primary lease or mortgage holder in a multifamily unit, mobile home, or single-family home within the city limits of San Antonio
- Provide proof of financial hardship that renders the household unable to pay rent, mortgage, or utilities
- Have an income at or below 100 percent of the area median income. Under these Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, a San Antonio family earning $72,000 a year or below would qualify.