The City of San Antonio has received more than $20 million in additional funding for its housing assistance program, the result of other local jurisdictions not spending their emergency federal grants fast enough.

City Council approved the latest batch of previously unallocated Emergency Rental Assistance funding from the U.S. Treasury, nearly $3 million, on Thursday alongside a $466,000 housing stability grant from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

“Every couple months, [the Treasury does] a reallocation of funding and the City of San Antonio has always been a recipient of that reallocation,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told the San Antonio Report. “We think the reason for that is because we are a recognized leader … we were the first to be able to activate a website and be able to get the funding out.

“We also have a lot of need,” Houston added.

Thursday’s allocation will be used to expand the city’s Housing Assistance Program‘s rental and relocation assistance and Right to Counsel services for eviction intervention.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the city has spent more than $221 million helping residents with rent, mortgage, utility and cash assistance, according to a housing department spokeswoman.

San Antonio was well positioned to accept the unprecedented amount of housing aid because it had already established an assistance program in 2019 to prevent displacement of vulnerable residents. The so-called Risk Mitigation Fund was renamed and pivoted to focus on pandemic relief with an online application portal.

“We were primed to receive the funding because we’ve made housing a priority at the elected level and the community level,” Houston said.

Like many local governments across the country, San Antonio struggled to keep up with demand at first. Some residents and landlords waited more than a month without receiving aid. But wait times for checks were soon measured in weeks or days. In September 2021, the White House recognized San Antonio’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program as a “high-performing” model that other cities should follow.

But not all communities knew how to handle the nearly $1 billion that was spread out among Texas cities and counties with strict deadlines for spending.

Clawing federal money back

The federal government took back more than $30 million of aid from programs that failed to spend their rental grants in time, including the City of Laredo, Hidalgo County and Hays County, according to a report by Texas Housers, an affordable housing policy and advocacy group.

The report, which analyzed 10 of the 37 emergency rental assistance programs across the state, found that political opposition, lack of experience or adaptability and staffing shortages contributed to a jurisdiction’s ability to successfully spend its money.

“The federal government devolved the responsibility of keeping low-income renters housed through the COVID-19 crisis to local governments, but did not account for the fact that only some were in a position to excel in this task,” the report states.

Neither Bexar County nor San Antonio were analyzed in the report. The city expanded its program in January 2021 to include Bexar County residents who live outside city limits. Over the past three years, the city bolstered its program with local funds and other state and federal grants.

Houston said the city has tried to help other jurisdictions improve their programs.

“We’ve made ourselves available to those communities to help them and show them how we were able to get the funding out and explain to them our application process,” she said. “We’ve been able to streamline it, but getting that online portal was key.”

Allocating the last of ARPA

The city is also close to allocating its remaining funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for social services.

Just $7.6 million of the original $327 million is still up for grabs. Just under half of that was left over after a lengthy, competitive bidding process, while nearly $4 million comes from interest income and program balances from other ARPA-related contracts.

City Council approved Thursday the spending framework for each category:

  • Mental health and other services for at-risk youth, especially those aging out of foster care: $3 million
  • Mental health, legal and navigation services for domestic violence survivors: $1 million
  • Harm reduction and substance abuse services: $600,000
  • Nonprofit operations for youth and senior serving organizations: $500,000
  • Homeless and youth aged 16-24: $674,000
  • Senior services, specifically focused on food insecurity and unpaid caregivers: $500,000

Groups that have already received ARPA funding are not eligible for this final round, city officials said. The requests for proposals will be released Monday and close April 27. After the proposals are reviewed and scored, City Council is slated to review staff recommendations and vote on the contracts on June 1.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg lauded city staff and his colleagues on the dais for unanimous support of the framework.

“For so many communities around the country, [ARPA] has been a lifeline for us to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nirenberg said. “And the worst of the health impacts may be over, but … the long tail of COVID still remains in terms of the disproportionate economic and health impacts on most disadvantaged members of our community.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at