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City Council voted Thursday to accept $46.8 million in federal funds to help with emergency rental and utility payment assistance related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Emergency Housing Assistance Program (EHAP) was created last April in response to the pandemic and is open to San Antonio and Bexar County residents making 80% or less of the area median income (AMI). EHAP funds can be used for rent and mortgage payments, utility bills, and cash assistance for necessities such as groceries. The federal funding would only apply to rent and utility payments, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston explained. 

“Currently, we’ve … spent about $72.2 million,” she said of previous EHAP funding. “This is as of Feb. 9, 2021. It [helped] approximately 30,000 families.”

To help residents apply for federal, state, and local emergency funding, the City will add five more “benefits navigators” to the City’s Department of Health Services in addition to 10 staffers already serving in those roles, Houston said.

Significantly, the City Council vote to approve the acceptance of $46.8 million for emergency rental assistance also reset the maximum number of months people are able to draw from the EHAP. Before Thursday, eligible residents could receive only six months of assistance. Now, if residents have received assistance for a few months, that number starts over, allowing them to draw another six months of assistance from the program.

“Now, we are proposing only six months at this time, because we need to manage our resources,” Houston said. “The State of Texas just announced their $1.3 billion rental assistance program and City of San Antonio residents are also eligible for that. And so if you are done with your six months of assistance and you no longer are eligible for the program, you apply to the state of Texas program, you’re eligible for an additional three months of assistance.”

The approved federal funding came with an amendment added by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), extending the maximum length of assistance from six to nine months for people with 50 percent or lower of the AMI. For everyone else eligible for financial assistance, the maximum length of assistance is still six months. The majority of families served already have an average AMI of 30%, Houston said.

“We only have 15% of families that are in the income bracket of 50% to 80% AMI,” she said. “The majority of those families that we’re helping are the most vulnerable and way below 50% [AMI]. In fact, the average is about 30% AMI in each of the council districts.”

The state’s program has similar parameters: Residents making 80% or less of their area median income can apply and they must prove COVID-19-related hardships, Houston said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) voiced concerns over not directing San Antonio residents to apply for state funds before applying for local assistance. He said he did not want to risk residents not getting any of the $1.3 billion in emergency rental funding that the state plans to distribute.

“Too often the state is too late with too little,” Courage said. “They’re out front right now, I think we ought to take advantage of that. And that will allow us to help more people on our end down the line.”

San Antonio’s federal funding has a deadline, Houston explained. Eighty percent of the $46.8 million must be spent by the end of September, while 100 percent must be spent by December.

“And so we want to spend this money as fast as possible,” Houston said.

City Council members also voted Thursday to accept a $14 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to administer vaccines. Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger projected a budget of $15.9 million to administer vaccines at the Alamodome, $7.1 million for mobile vaccination sites, and $4 million for homebound seniors between January and September 2021.

“We did transition to 100% drive-thru [at the Alamodome],” Bridger said. “That’s working very well. That’s the most efficient way that we have found to provide the service.” 

The Alamodome currently is distributing 10,000 to 12,000 vaccines per week, Bridger said. San Antonio Fire Department personnel can vaccinate up to 1,000 homebound seniors per week. And there are four mobile vaccination units ready to use once the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District receives more vaccines; that effort is estimated to begin in April, Bridger said. Potential locations include community colleges, churches, and community organizations.

“We can do 715 vaccines [daily] per mobile unit, and the thought is that we will go to four different locations a day,” she said. 

The City was also notified that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse all eligible costs entirely, leading the City to put together a more “holistic” coronavirus vaccination budget of $27 million, Bridger said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) revived his pursuit of a county-wide coronavirus vaccine registry, something that Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he has asked Metro Health and other vaccine providers to explore. Signing up for vaccines online and over the phone when supply becomes available makes the process harder, Courage argued.

“You’re gambling that you’re going to get an appointment by trying to call in or email in, and I still find that totally unacceptable for residents in my district, and I think many of us around the city feel the same way,” he said.”It’s just a gamble. If you’re lucky enough to have somebody answer your call, you may get an appointment.”

City Manager Erik Walsh explained that because the City of San Antonio does not control all the vaccine doses in the county, it doesn’t have the capability to set up such a registry. 

“That being said, last Friday, in advance of all the emergency weather issues that we’ve been dealing with since then, we talked to [University Health] and the [UT] Health Science Center about the first step of joining into our text notification system so that when vaccine is available for reservation, whether it’s UHS or the Health Science Center, that we would utilize our text system,” Walsh said.

Those discussions were pushed to the back burner as winter weather issues took priority, but the City is still working with other agencies to collaborate on a text notification system, Walsh said. 

Though several council members said they understand Courage’s perspective, no one supported his motion to include a centralized registry in the City’s vaccine plan. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) pointed out that even if University Health and UT Health San Antonio agree to be part of it, private providers like Walgreens or CVS might not. Supply also lags far behind vaccine demand right now, he said.

“It’s akin to the risk that we’re running with CPS right now, right? People are furious that they don’t know when they’re going to get their energy turned on,” he said.

Bridger said though she understands people have anxiety about when they can get vaccinated, the supply of coronavirus vaccines from the federal government to private providers is increasing.

“I really do believe that this focus on mass vaccinations is going to gradually diminish over time and it’s going to become a system more like what we’re familiar with flu shots, where you can go to your pharmacies and go to your grocery store, you can go to places you go to already and get your COVID-19 vaccination,” she said.

Council members also voted Thursday to adjust the Coronavirus Relief and Resiliency Plan to increase the funding allocated to food and beverage establishments by $14 million, addressing an area promoted by Councilman Roberto Treviño in a Council Consideration Request (CCR). Of that sum, $9.8 million comes from unspent childcare funds in the workforce development portion of the plan and $4.2 million previously set aside for on-the-job training. Alex Lopez, the City’s director of economic development, explained that the demand for childcare was much lower than anticipated and if demand were to rise, there are potential funding sources within the Department of Human Services.

“There are actually additional resources from the resources that the Department of Human Services traditionally uses for childcare, we have actually seen additional resources come down,” Lopez said. “So there’s still availability there as well.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.