Just as funding was drying up, the City Council on Thursday approved another $24 million toward San Antonio’s Covid-19 emergency housing relief program, an amount intended to help keep renters and mortgage holders from being evicted at least through the fall.
The allocation was a fraction of the $2.9 billion fiscal year 2021 budget, which the council unanimously passed while spending more on San Antonio police amid calls from local activists to defund the department.
» To apply for the City of San Antonio’s emergency housing assistance and right to counsel programs, click here.
» Call the St. Mary’s University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse the city’s other Covid-19 relief options
In a separate vote, the council unanimously approved changes to the housing program, which will lessen the amount each San Antonio household impacted by the pandemic receives—from three months of rent or mortgage payments covered, to two. So far, 15,971 families have been approved for assistance since April 23, when the council supersized and rebranded a similar program in light of the pandemic.
In a new strategy, the city will also direct recipients of housing benefits to its job training program for those whose employment was impacted by the coronavirus. The program offers potential jobs in healthcare, manufacturing and IT industries, and targets people in the most impacted industries, such as hospitality, food service and retail.
The new direction has been criticized by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who’s been the most ardent council member in fighting for more housing relief dollars. He has argued publicaly that the city should prioritize emergency relief dollars toward keeping people housed, rather than on job training, as the crisis rolls on.
“The program changes are not one a compassionate city would make,” Treviño said at Thursday’s meeting. “And they are made solely at the benefit of extending or expanding the workforce plan.”
However, Treviño tempered his criticism with the understanding that the pay-out amounts and eligibility requirements, could be discussed and potentially restored to their current state at a council subcommittee in early October.
In addition to paying people’s rent or mortgage, the program also pays utility bills, including internet, and offers up to $500 cash. Households have received an average of $2,851, the majority of which make less than 30% of the area median income, which is $21,600 for a family of four. The vast majority of recipients, 85%, are renters, according to the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
Change in strategy
On Monday, city officials revealed a modified version of the housing assistance program.
Rather than offering up to three months of assistance, the revised program offered residents making less than 50% of the area median income (AMI) the full benefits for one month. The second month, the family would only receive up to $500 in cash, and no other benefits.
Residents making in the 50%-80% AMI range would receive rental or mortgage aid for on month, minus the utility bills aid, then $250 cash for the second month. The revised plan also would exclude people making between 81% and 100% AMI.
Residents who already received aid could receive one month of cash assistance beginning Oct. 1.
During Thursday’s meeting, the council heard from Rick Treviño, a volunteer at St. Mary’s University’s eviction legal advice hotline.
“Thousands of people have been helped by this program the way it is,” Treviño said. “It doesn’t have to get too complicated.”
The council also heard from Jessica Guerrero, chairwoman of the Housing Commission, who read a letter from the commission: “We have heard from countless residents, advocacy groups, resident associations, community leaders, institutional experts, and others, with a unifying theme: That our housing system in San Antonio required continuous improvement, investment and leadership.”
When asked whether lessening the benefits was a means to extending the funds, the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) said in a statement that strategy shift was intended to make funding available to people who have not yet applied for assistance.
“It was intended to help a larger number of applicants,” Edith Merla, NHSD spokeswoman, said in an email.
Treviño felt the lessening of benefits would lead more renters in arrears with their landlords, which would lead to the landlord imposing more fees and eventually an eviction filing.
At Thursday’s council meeting, City Manager Erik Walsh said his staff modified the program to two months of benefits followed by one month of cash after hearing feedback from Treviño and other council members this week.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said the city would resolve any back rent or mortgage payments owed—up to $5,000—should a resident find themselves in eviction court.
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed an eviction moratorium Sept. 4 through Dec. 31, the order doesn’t absolve debt owned by tenants, nor does it prevent landlords from filing eviction lawsuits.
Boost in spending
The $24 million approved Thursday was an increase from $5.25 million that was originally earmarked in the proposed FY 2021 city budget.
The new funding brings the total amount San Antonio has devoted to housing relief to $76.5 million.
Treviño said he was pleased with the continued commitment to the program, but worries it’s not going to last the year, and has lobbied for more funding to help families at the very end of this year and beginning of 2021.
The councilman said he’s been working with the city auditor on the numbers, and has concluded the $24 million will run dry by Dec. 1.
Houston told Treviño on Monday that the funding would last through the end of the year.
The $24 million is being pieced together using general fund dollars, Community Development Block Grant funding, Covid-19 relief funds, $1 million from the San Antonio Housing Trust, and other sources.
The city’s “Train for Jobs SA” program is partnership with various workforce training organizations locally, including Workforce Solutions Alamo, Alamo Colleges, Project Quest, Chrysalis Ministries, Family Service, and Restore Education.
The program provides an opportunity to land a short-term or long-term job that pay up to $15 per hour in one of the aforementioned industries.
» To apply for the city’s job training program, visit either Workforce Solutions Alamo, Alamo Colleges District or Restore Education.
“Within three months of training completion, our goal is that 50% of program graduates secure employment within a demand occupation,” Alejandra Lopez, director of the city’s Economic Development Department, said in an email.
Before landing a job, participants can earn up to $15 an hour for time spent training, for a maximum of $450 a week. Depending on which program is chosen, a participant can receive a stipend from two to 36 weeks.
The council approved the $75 million program in early June as part a larger $190.9 million Covid-19 recovery strategy, which included funds for housing security, small business aid and digital inclusion efforts. That day, council members heard from several citizens who said the strategy lacked public input.
City officials expect the program to help 10,000 San Antonians receive training or employment by September 2021.
Unemployment claims in Bexar County have stabilized in recent weeks—but that’s only in the context of the new norm, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.
The week before the pandemic, less than 1,000 people filed unemployment claims locally. That figure soared the week of March 21, when 14,312 claims were filed. In the subsequent six weeks, an average of 15,882 claims were filed.
In recent weeks, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 5, an average of 3,426 claims have been filed in Bexar County.
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