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COVID-19

Hays County is still struggling to give out COVID-19 rent relief. Now, the program is losing money.

Hays County Historic Courthouse on Jan. 18, 2022.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Hays County is one of 14 entities across the country that's having funds for their COVID-19 rent relief program taken back by the federal government.

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It’s official: Hays County is losing almost $800,000 in federal funding for its Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The program, which offers rent and utility relief to residents struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, was in danger of losing funding last year, after it failed to meet a federal deadline for spending. Now, the federal government is reclaiming that unspent money and doling it out to other rental assistance programs with better track records.

The loss comes at a time when many people across Hays County are still dealing with the financial fallout of the pandemic. And housing advocates say that the county should brace for more losses if it continues to miss federal deadlines.

“This is the start of a piecemeal process of Hays County potentially losing a lot of funds every two months … until it’s all gone,” said Erin Hahn, a research analyst with Texas Housers, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income housing solutions. “It should be [an] all-hands-on-deck scenario to retain these funds, especially as evictions are still occurring.”

Officials previously pointed to small staff sizes and bottlenecks in processing documents required for rental assistance applications as reasons for the delay in spending. The federal government has since largely waived the requirements for many of those documents, like pay stubs or W-2 forms, encouraging programs to take people's answers in good faith in order to process applications faster and ultimately get more money out.

The program took another hit earlier this month when the program administrator, Wesley Matthews, resigned. Matthews said he decided to quit because he felt he could do more to help people process their applications, and ultimately get the money out, as a volunteer.

Matthews said the program didn't have the staff or software in place to run smoothly. He also said his requests for more staff were repeatedly turned down.

“The biggest need was personnel,” he said.

Another administrative position could have helped act as a liaison between the county and landlords, he said. The rental assistance funds are paid out directly to the landlords of the people who apply. The Austin American-Statesman reported that one property manager was waiting on about $28,000 in rental assistance from Hays County last month, putting tenants there at risk of eviction.

Matthews said that having to give money back to the federal government hurts "the entire community."

"We should be fighting like heck to keep it here," he said.

In a statement released Thursday, the county said remaining staff members have "kept the program moving forward."

More losses down the line

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. The federal spending target for September was 30%, setting the county up to lose the nearly $800,000.

More recent data shows that Hays County, once again, failed to meet a federal spending deadline in November, positioning it to lose more money down the line. As of Nov. 30, Hays County had spent about 7% of the nearly $7 million award. The federal spending target for November was 40%.

The federal government will continue to review spending in Hays County every two months until the final deadline in March. By then, the county will be expected to have spent all of its awarded funds.

“At this point, with just a few months left … until it's clawed back entirely, I would encourage Hays County to spend as quickly as possible because otherwise it'll just be taken away,” Hahn, the research analyst, said.

In the meantime, the county is back to the drawing board. On Tuesday, county commissioners voted to put out a bid for a new program manager.

Commissioner Walt Smith said he's looking forward to bringing someone in to improve the program.

“We are at a point where I don’t want to see any of those additional dollars go back to the federal government,” Smith said. “And we have to have a workable program. It’s obvious that it’s not working.”

In the statement released Thursday, county spokesperson Kim Hilsenbeck said that more than $844,000 has been paid to landlords, hotels and utility companies, to date. And that another roughly $100,000 in hotel payments is under review.

"As of now, the county’s program has more than $4.5 million remaining to assist those impacted by COVID-19 in terms of housing and utility payments," the statement reads.

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