Before the devastating winter storm struck San Antonio last month, it took the City of San Antonio about 14 days to process an application for pandemic-related housing assistance.

But a week’s worth of work delayed by freezing temperatures, power outages, and water issues has set the process back, with the average application now taking about 25 days from submission to issuing funds.

“I understand the winter storm has set us back in numerous ways,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said during a City Council committee meeting Wednesday. “But taking nearly a month to cut the check is going to push a lot of people out of their homes, especially with the [federal eviction] moratorium set to end this month.”

Treviño asked if the Emergency Housing Assistance Program needs more staff or resources to reduce the delay.

The delay is entirely due to the storm, said Edward Gonzales, assistant director of the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. “We had that whole week that we did not have staff … processing [applications] because they couldn’t get to work.”

On Feb. 18, City Council approved a previous plan to assign additional 34 employees to directly assist that program, Gonzales said. The staffing bump – which nearly doubled its previous team of 38 – was unrelated to the storm, but came just in time.

“Coincidentally, it happened at the same time,” Gonzales said. The City had already recognized a need to ramp up the program. “We are working as quickly as we can.”

Ten of the additional temporary workers will be answering phone calls from residents in need and 24 people will be processing applications.

Gonzales anticipates clearing out the backlog by the end of March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium will expire.

While the moratorium will expire, the $133 million Emergency Housing Assistance Program – with funding from local, state and federal sources – is expected to last through September. The program provides rental or mortgage assistance, utility assistance, and cash assistance for households who earn less than 80% of the area median income (AMI) – that’s $40,310 for an individual and $57,600 for a family of four. The average AMI of the nearly 29,500 recipients who have received assistance funds citywide is less than 35% (roughly $25,000 for a family of four).

But the need has been hard to predict, Gonzales said. From April 2020 to Feb. 18, the average amount of assistance actually given out per household was $2,505. Since then, that has spiked to $4,225.

Regardless, Gonzales is confident that more funding through the federal government is coming.

In addition to financial help, the City offers legal help to residents at risk of losing their homes through the Right to Counsel program. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) and the San Antonio Legal Services Association were hired by the City to operate the pilot program in March as part of the 2020 budget.

When it became clear that the demand for the program – which helps tenants fight eviction and fees – would only increase during the coronavirus pandemic, the City expanded the program in June.

Legal services were provided to nearly 350 people and 94% of clients facing eviction were able to stay in their homes, said Veronica Soto, director of the Neighborhood Housing and Services Department.

Next week, City Council will vote on whether to grant another $200,000 contract with TRLA. The contract includes the continuation of current services and staffing new legal kiosks where residents can get legal advice.

Treviño, who pushed for the inclusion of a Right to Counsel program in the 2020 budget, said he hopes even more money can be found in the future for such services.

“We know eviction and displacement is devastating … [and] impacts people in a way that can last a lifetime,” he said. “I would like to see Right to Counsel grow in San Antonio.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org