Austin City Council members have approved a $15 million relief fund to aid residents affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this is a big deal and I’m really proud of this council,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said before the vote Thursday.
The money will be funneled through nonprofits, some of which have existing contracts with the city. Council members are asking that half the $15 million be used to help nonprofits meet increased demand for current services they provide, such as help for survivors of domestic abuse, rental assistance and food access.
Some social service providers have reported a spike in demand; El Buen Samaritano, for example, told KUT it has seen a more than 400% increase in weekly visitors to its food pantry.
The remaining money will be available from the nonprofits for one-time direct cash payments to residents, through either a debit or credit card.
While the organizations doling out cash assistance would decide who qualifies for the money, council members asked that they prioritize people who do not qualify for assistance from the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill, such as people who are undocumented.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents Northwest Austin, called the measure “filling a gap.”
“We’re really looking to seek the folks who aren’t going to be accessing those [federal] resources,” he said.
“Please help the immigrant community here in the shadows,” Marilu Fructuoso said through a translator during public testimony via phone. She thanked the council for representing people who are undocumented. “With this proposal we could get some help to make payments. … It would help me be able to breathe a little bit easier.”
Council members also asked that low-income households – in this case, a family of four making less than roughly $52,000 a year – get first dibs.
At the time of the Thursday afternoon vote, the city could not say which social service providers would get the cash or how the money would be divvied up; Austin Public Health would make that call.
Stephanie Hayden with Austin Public Health said the city would be sending out more information Friday on eligibility and how people can apply for this assistance. A letter sent to council members Thursday from various civil rights organizations, including Grassroots Leadership, urged the city to make sure one-time cash payments do not come with guidelines and that families are able to allocate that money as they please.
One hope is that the $15 million reaches people in time to cover May rent. Although the state has put evictions on hold and Austin has passed additional protections for renters, all owed rent will eventually come due. A national group representing apartment owners found a 10% uptick in the number of renters who were unable to pay April rent this year over last year.
But the City Council may be cutting it close. Garza said Austin Public Health expects it could take up to three weeks for some nonprofits to receive the aid money. It could take longer, she said, in cases where the city has to write a new contract.
On Tuesday, a consultant presented City Council a somber outlook for Austin's economy, estimating nearly 25% of the region’s workers could be without work. If reached, these unemployment rates would mirror those seen during the Great Depression.
The $15 million aid package will come out of the city’s reserve funds, which function much like a savings account. Current policy is to keep those funds at 12% of the city’s operating budget; currently the city’s savings exceed that mark by about $25 million.
It’s likely the city will be reimbursed, at least in part, by the federal government.
“Right now, as we understand the rules, 75% of eligible expenses will be reimbursable,” Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, told KUT. He said that is standard repayment for federal disaster relief funds.
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