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The federal government sent the City of San Antonio $46.7 million on Wednesday for emergency rental assistance as part of supplemental coronavirus relief funding.

The amount was far larger than City officials expected. Earlier this month, City Manager Erik Walsh estimated that San Antonio would receive just $6 million in funding for rental assistance. The money came as President Joe Biden signed an executive order to extend the federal eviction moratorium through at least March 31.

Although it’s unclear exactly how this funding can be used – federal funds typically come with strict reporting and qualification standards – City officials expect it will help thousands of residents remain in their rented homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Not less than 90 percent of awarded funds must be used for direct financial assistance, including rent, rental arrears, utilities and home energy costs arrears, and other expenses related to housing,” Walsh wrote in a memo to the mayor and City Council members Wednesday.

The remaining funds can be used for supplemental housing programming, including case management and other services intended to keep households stably housed, and for administrative costs.

The City’s current $86 million program – of which $68.2 million has been spent – also covers eligible residents’ utility bills and rental payments that are up to two months in arrears. But unlike the City’s program, the federal funds cannot be used to provide direct cash assistance to residents and will generally expire on Dec. 31.

The federal funding would bring the total amount spent through the City’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program to nearly $130 million.

A spending plan for the federal funding will be discussed by the Council’s Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee next month and will require approval by the full Council.

Meanwhile, a divided City Council voted Thursday on how to use $3 million in additional funds for the emergency housing program. Ultimately, Council voted 6-5 to shift that funding back to other housing financing programs that incentivize affordable home and apartment development.

When Council discussed how to reallocate a $10.2 million Community Development Block Grant earlier this month, federal funding for rental assistance was just a possibility.

But the $46.7 million funding boost “changes everything,” said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who made a motion to restore gap financing for $2 million for affordable rental housing and $1 million for homeownership development.

This $3 million will help home and apartment developers who offer affordable rent and mortgage housing units, such as Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio, complete funding for their projects.

This funding is not being diverted from coronavirus relief funding to “greedy housing developers,” said Natalie Griffith, president and CEO of the nonprofit Habitat, noting that this funding was originally intended for such programs but temporarily diverted towards housing assistance last year.

“It makes sense to restore the homeownership development funds because the need is real and rapidly increasing,” Griffith said. “Habitat is receiving more applications for affordable homeownership than ever.”

“We have the ability to both. It’s not an either-or option,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who voted in favor of Gonzales’ amendment along with Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Councilman John Courage (D9), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“With the $46 million that we just received … we finally have some certainty in the fact that we will be able to get through this pandemic and not see the end of that Emergency Housing Assistance Program,” Nirenberg said. “This City has created an affordable housing crisis. … It’s a problem in this pandemic and it’s going to be an even bigger problem outside of this pandemic.”

The Council committee next month will also discuss loosening the eligibility requirement of residents to receive assistance and adjust how much an individual can receive.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who led the charge to keep the $3 million for housing assistance as recommended by City staff on Wednesday, argued that the City should put as much money as it can towards addressing the immediate emergency.

“This … is a fire that we need to address instead of talking about building fire stations,” said Treviño, who also chairs the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee that will be reviewing the spending plan. He noted that housing advocates and City staff had agreed to keep the $3 million in direct housing assistance.

Many affordable housing projects are not serving the lowest-income residents, housing advocate Maureen Galindo told City Council. “Yes, we need safe places to live in. But when we have these so-called affordable housing developments, which I live in one, and I’m telling you the rent goes up every single year, it’s actually not that much more affordable. It’s near market rate.”

Treviño agreed that it’s not an either-or decision because the City can find other avenues to support gap financing.

Council members Melissa Havrda (D6), Ana Sandoval (D7), Manny Pelaez (D8), and Clayton Perry (D10) voted with Treviño.

The funding approved Thursday also funds $4.6 million to enhance the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, $900,000 for owner-occupied home rehabilitation grants, $900,000 to maintain a temporary shelter for homeless people at a hotel, $425,000 for minor home repair grants, $189,000 for housing counseling and foreclosure prevention, and $159,000 to continue its eviction intervention program.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org