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COVID-19

Travis County Reopened Its COVID-19 Rent Help Program A Month Ago. No One Has Been Paid Yet.

Protesters drove along I-35 during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1, 2020.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Protesters, including members of the organization Rent Strike ATX, drive down Interstate 35 and frontage roads near downtown Austin slowing traffic as part of a protest on May 1, 2020.

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At least 4,000 people who say they've been economically affected by the pandemic have applied since January for Travis County's rent relief program, which currently has $10.7 million in federal funds.

However, none of them have received aid yet.

And while the county says it hopes to begin disbursing rent funds by early June, the end of some local eviction protections is fast approaching.

“We do believe that we will certainly be able to get payments out in a manner that will help folks address any concerns that they're headed towards eviction,” Sherri Fleming, the head of Travis County Health and Human Services told KUT.

Travis County, which includes Austin, has run an emergency rent program for years. When the pandemic began, the county started channeling funds to those hit financially by the crisis.

The latest iteration of the Travis County Emergency Rental Assistance Program launched April 19. Since then, the county has received 1,033 applications for rent help, but officials are also considering an additional 3,200 applications from renters who could not be helped by the county's general rent assistance program, which is funded with local dollars. Some renters who were moved off this waitlist had applied for rent assistance as far back as January, Fleming said. That brings the total number of pending applications to just over 4,200.

The county has started reviewing these applications, a process that includes verifying that tenants have not received other governmental rent help.

The county is still receiving applications and renters have until Sept. 1 to apply.

The application review process is beginning weeks after county officials loosened local eviction bans that have been in place for much of the pandemic. Starting June 1, landlords can begin evicting tenants who are at least five months behind on rent and have depleted all rent assistance help; this includes renters whose applications for rent funds have been denied or left pending for 45 days or more.

“We have used these eviction protections as an important tool to keep our community safe and housed as part of our COVID-19 response,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said in an emailed statement when his office announced the new eviction orders. “We now have additional significant investments in rental assistance for tenants and landlords, and this modified order encourages our community to apply for rental assistance before someone can be evicted.”

KUT asked to speak to Brown about the rent assistance program, but county spokesperson Hector Nieto said he was not available.

Shoshana Krieger, project director at Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, an advocacy group for low-income tenants, said as local officials consider whether to unwind eviction bans entirely they will also need to ensure they can get rent assistance to tenants quickly.

"Having rental assistance programs which can deliver funds in an expedient manner is going to be crucial to stemming the tide of a wave of evictions," she said.

Rent relief programs in Texas have been slow to get money to tenants and landlords who say they need it. A month after opening its rent help program, the state had made just three rent payments. Renters who applied for the city of Austin’s rent assistance program last year complained of onerous document requirements and a long wait in getting rent paid once they were approved.

The city program, which is separate from the county program and has more than double the funds, launched a third round of rent help on March 15. By April 7, a representative for the city’s housing authority, which helps run the program, said the city planned to pay $501,392 in monthly rent payments to 93 families that week.

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