Austin Protects Renters With Newly Announced Emergency Rent Assistance
Austin's Newly Announced $17 Million Emergency Rent Assistance Plan Will Protect Renters
With the uncertainty of employment and financial woes circling around the COVID-19 pandemic, so many citizens are struggling to get by each day. The average American spends 37% of their income on housing, so it’s no surprise that those who make monthly housing payments are concerned they won’t be able to afford their bills. Austin, Texas set high standards for other states across the U.S. when they announced a $17 million rental assistance program on July 21st for residents that have been impacted by COVID-19.
Back in May, Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department distributed $1.2 million to help renters struggling to make ends meet, although there were some stipulations that made it rather difficult for many renters to receive this funding. The first round of assistance, referred to as RENT 1.0 (Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants), required applicants to be on a traditional lease, which sifted out many applicants that needed rental assistance just as much as someone who signed a lease. This new round of funding, being dubbed RENT 2.0, will benefit those who have a non-traditional lease as well.
In May, when Austin released RENT 1.0, they hadn’t yet received federal coronavirus relief funds. That added backing is what allowed the program’s budget to jump from $1.2 million to $17 million. City officials have broken down this funding to be used in three categories: $13 million for general rental assistance, $1.3+ million to prevent eviction and for overall tenant stabilization services, and $500,000 for community outreach. The approval system may not be what one would expect – a lottery. Mandy De Mayo, Community Development Administrator for NHCD, shared that interested renters will submit an application once, and then each month applicants will be chosen at random in a lottery.
Anyone who has needed assistance over the course of the pandemic – which is the majority of Americans – has likely been drowning in various pages of applications requiring extensive documents. The ease and accessibility of these applications are necessary to avoid any confusion, as well as futile time spent hovering over these papers, and the city of Austin agrees. Their goal is to make the application process as seamless as possible. The application will begin with a handful of simple and standard questions that are designed to quickly eliminate those who don’t meet the basic requirements in efforts to not waste the time of those who don’t qualify. Once someone is chosen by lottery, they will move forward with the application and answer additional questions.
The general requirements to be eligible for RENT are that you live in Austin, make 80% or less than Austin’s MFI, are not a recipient of other rental assistance programs, have some form of documentation showing that COVID-19 has impacted you financially, and are currently on a signed lease (either “traditional” or “non-traditional”). Another element that helps to reach as many people as possible is that applicants don’t have to be a U.S. Citizen, just an Austin resident.
Almost 11,000 renters applied for the initial Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants in May and De Mayo says Austin was able to assist 1,681 households. The slew of applications really shined a light on the financial issues Austin residents are facing. City officials were able to recognize the severity of so many families’ current financial issues, which only encouraged them to continue to grow the RENT program. Two-thirds of the 1,681 households that were chosen to collect rental assistance were only making 30% of the median family income in Austin, or even less. With Austin’s MFI at $97,600, that means some households were making $29,280 or less a year, and some residents who live alone were making as little as $20,550 annually.
In this next phase of the Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants (RENT 2.0), those households making less than $30,000 per year who are barely scraping by will be able to get up to three months of their rent taken care of with this program. Those who make a bit more – between 30% and 80% of Austin’s MFI – but have still been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, will be able to get one month’s rent paid through this funding. Some additional changes made to RENT 2.0 that will positively impact recipients of this funding is that recipients will now receive payments that cover the entirety of their rent, whereas, during RENT 1.0, everyone received the same one-time payment, regardless of their income or rent. Not everyone needs the same assistance, of course, and RENT 2.0 will prove to be more efficient considering it will take crucial factors into account, tailor-making an assistance package for each accepted applicant.
Considering Travis County’s moratorium on evictions is set to expire on September 30th, RENT 2.0 couldn’t come at a better time. In addition to the wavering eviction ban, the supplementary weekly $600 unemployment benefits have expired, putting many in fear of not being able to pay their bills. These factors will certainly push more applicants to apply and De Mayo expects to help around 2,000 households with RENT 2.0.
The lottery system is nothing new, but concerning for those who are relying on this rental assistance to simply survive. RENT 2.0 is budgeted to assist residents for the next 6 months or so, with both rent payments and eviction protection. As Carlota Garcia of Central Texas Interfaith shares, “No longer are we able to borrow from friends or borrow from family, savings accounts have been pillaged, there is no cushion left for people. This moment has the potential to become disastrous.” Carlota goes on to express that the federal government should organize a plan that assists those in need beyond the next six months. For many, the maximum three months of rent coverage isn’t enough to get them back on their feet, especially if they have permanently lost their job due to coronavirus related cutbacks. “In order for us to be able to prevent families from falling into starvation, or worse, we really need to have the federal government step up, as well as a statewide government to step up, and really come through with some assistance for families to benefit,” Garcia added.
With this expansion of the rental assistance program, Austin is helping to keep people in their homes and avoid terrifying evictions as well as a potential increase of the unhoused population.
As De Mayo says, “We really want to do our due diligence, extensive outreach in order to reach communities that are really underrepresented. We will be paying the full contract rent amount. In the first program, we had tenants pay 30% of their rent and we also created a ceiling.” While Austin officials are going to great lengths to assist their beloved community, hopefully, other states will take note and apply these same efforts to help the U.S. move forward and grow.