City Council considers putting $21.9M more into emergency housing assistance

Money would keep program going into December; city staff recommends cutting how much recipients can get

The city's emergency housing assistance program provides struggling residents with funds to cover housing costs but another phase of funding could be on the way.

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio City Council is considering adding another $21.9 million to the city’s COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which helps struggling residents pay their rent, mortgage, and other bills, along with providing some cash.

The program’s current funding is expected to run out near the end of the month or at the beginning of October, as it pays out about $400,000 to $500,000 every day. City staff believe the additional money would keep the program going into December.

However, they are also recommending cuts to how much assistance people get and tightening up the income requirements. Neighborhood & Housing Services Department Assistant Director Edward Gonzales said the changes would help them get the money to people with the most need.

“We want to make sure that we’re serving those that need it the most,” Gonzales said.

Of the $52.5 million the city had previously sent to the emergency assistance program, Gonzales said $50.9 million will actually go to helping residents. The other $1.6 million, he said, should cover administrative costs into December.

More than 15,700 applications had been approved as of Tuesday evening, and $44.9 million had been paid out.

Some residents have been getting several months' worth of funding. The program currently allows residents to get up to three months or $5,000 worth of assistance, whichever comes first.

However, city staff are recommending that future recipients of the program only get one month of full assistance. If they need more assistance for a second month, depending on their income, the recipients could get either $250 or $500.

Applications are currently restricted to San Antonio residents who can document a hardship due to COVID-19, whether it’s the loss of a job or unexpected medical bills. While the current program allows applicants up to 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI), the proposed changes would raise the threshold.

City staff had initially proposed changing the program to allow only people who earn less than 50% of the AMI, but after conversations with council members, they switched to a tiered approach.

In a proposal shared with a council committee on Monday, applicants who earned up to 80% of the AMI would also be eligible for the program, but they would only be able to get rent or mortgage assistance in the first month and receive less cash in the second.

However, Gonzales notes that many people who have lost their jobs should be able to meet the income criteria since the city calculates that when they are applying.

City staff have also presented connected residents to the new Workforce Development Program, which provides stipends to participants to provide more assistance.

Though supportive of the additional funding, District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino opposes the proposed changes to the benefits. He believes that residents who wouldn’t otherwise want to apply for the Workforce Development Program would be pushed into joining it as their only way to continue getting assistance to pay their bills.

“The problem is that they (city staff) made that change -- not council, they did -- as a means to both push people into workforce development or stretch out the dollars,” Trevino said. “I think it’s just egregious. There’s people that are going to be in need, and I don’t want to create a technicality that keeps them from having access to those funds if they need help.”

Trevino also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s renter protections would expire at the end of the year, soon after the proposed third wave of funding would be exhausted. The CDC protections protect renters from eviction, but only if they submit a document to their landlord declaring they meet several criteria. However, it doesn’t free the renter from paying rent or forgive any late payments.

“So we need to be planning. We need to be proactive, and we need to be thinking about what phase four, phase five, may look like in a program like this,” Trevino said.

The proposed $21.9 million would come from a variety of sources:

  • reallocating some of the federal Coronavirus Relief Funds the city received;
  • reallocating Community Development Block Grant and city general fund dollars in the FY 2021 budget;
  • requesting more money from the San Antonio Housing Trust.

The figure also includes the $5.25 million the city has already proposed for the FY 2021 budget.

The City Council is expected to vote on the issue on Thursday, along with a plan to move more money toward the city’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.