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Hays County could lose almost $800K in funding for its emergency rental assistance program

The Hays County Courthouse.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

Hays County is positioned to lose almost $800,000 in funding for a program that offers rent and utility relief to residents struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent audit on rental assistance programs across the country found that, as of Sept. 30, Hays County had spent about $166,000 — or 2.4% — of the nearly $7 million it was awarded for the program. That percentage makes the county one of 16 local governments in Texas that failed to meet federal spending targets.

The federal government plans to take back some of that unspent money and give it to other programs with better track records of spending.

Texas Housers, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income housing solutions, said the timing of the federal recapture is precarious given that there are fewer options now to seek rental help. Texas closed the application portal for a statewide rent relief program, citing “overwhelming demand” from people who need help.

“That was kind of like a safety net,” said Erin Hahn, a research analyst with Texas Housers. "But now that the safety net has disappeared, it's even more pressure on local programs to support the need and meet the need.”

County promises improvements

As of last week, 686 applicants had started the rental assistance process; half of those applications are still active, with assigned case managers. The county has helped 73 households, paying around $300,000 in bills to landlords, utilities and hotels, Hays County spokesperson Kim Hilsenbeck said.

Officials previously have pointed to small staff sizes and lengthy lists of required documents as possible reasons for the delay in processing applications. Hilsenbeck said the county is doing its "level best to reach as many people as possible."

“Some of the ... bottleneck is just getting everybody through [the] system and making sure that we cross all the T's and dot the I's and that all of our reporting requirements are met,” she said.

“Some of the ... bottleneck is just getting everybody through that system and making sure that we cross all the T's and dot the I's and that all of our reporting requirements are met."
Kim Hilsenbeck, Hays County information officer

The federal government released guidance in August suggesting local programs drop many of these requirements for documents, like pay stubs or W2 forms, to prove circumstances of financial hardship or poverty. Instead, the government encouraged programs to take people's answers in good faith as a way to process applications faster and ultimately get more money out.

Hays County adopted some of those policies in October, when it enlisted the help of volunteers from local community organizations to serve as case managers and help applicants with their paperwork, and allowed people to self-certify for some of the eligibility requirements.

Hilsenbeck said other improvements are detailed in a Program Improvement Plan the county submitted to Treasury Department this week. This plan outlines ways the county has changed its program to speed up the process. Had it not submitted a plan by Monday's deadline, the county could have lost closer to $2 million, Treasury Department data shows.

"I wouldn't want to lose any of the funding," Hilsenbeck said, "but I can tell you that from a human standpoint, the folks that are working on this program and the other partners in the community, they are taking every action that they can to get this money where it needs to be."

The Treasury Department will evaluate how many best practices the county has adopted when ultimately deciding whether to take back less of the unspent money. It’s unclear how many of those boxes Hays County checked beyond partnering with community organizations and allowing for some self-certification.

Hilsenbeck said the county is willing to do "whatever they can" to better meet those requirements.

“Treasury is really looking to see that these cities and counties and states that have failed to distribute above a certain threshold by the end of September are committing to implementing more of these best practices than they had previously,” Hahn said.

Housing advocates call rollout pace unacceptable

There have been a lot of moving parts to getting everything up and running, Hilsenbeck said.

Hays County Commissioners spent several months discussing how to get the program going before it launched in mid-July. Initially, commissioners were going to hire an outside company to run it, but they ultimately decided on keeping it in-house.

“The federal government is looking at our program through a month and a half ago, and I think that we've really hit our stride in the last month or so,” Hilsenbeck said. “I think as you see things moving forward ... it'll be more of a well-oiled machine.”

But housing advocates said the pace of the rollout is still unacceptable. Hahn pointed out that Hays County first received its allocation of funds in early January. She said most major cities in Texas had programs up and running by February.

“Some of the big cities did have an advantage — like San Antonio, they already had the infrastructure in place. They already had a rental assistance program that they could kind of reinvent just to funnel these emergency rental assistance funds through,” Hahn said. “But at this point in time, it's been many, many months.”

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Corrected: November 18, 2021 at 2:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story stated as of last week 686 rental assistance applications were active and about half had case managers. That many people started the process, but only 344 applications remain active.
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