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Why some Texas cities and counties had to return millions in rental aid during the pandemic

 Demonstrators gathered outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston on Aug. 21, 2020, to protest evictions. A new Texas Housers report found that differences in staffing, political support and community outreach impacted how effective cities and counties were in distributing federal funds to assist renters during the pandemic.
Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Demonstrators gathered outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston on Aug. 21, 2020, to protest evictions. A new Texas Housers report found that differences in staffing, political support and community outreach impacted how effective cities and counties were in distributing federal funds to assist renters during the pandemic.

For some local relief programs, a lack of staffing, political support and effective community outreach got in the way of spending federal funds to prevent evictions, a new report found. More than $30 million went unspent and had to be returned.

In the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the risk of mass evictions prompted the federal government to appropriate a historic amount of funding to help state and local governments keep low-income renters housed. In two installments, Texas cities and counties received nearly $1 billion for rental assistance, an unprecedented sum.

But much of that money had a deadline by which it needed to be spent. A report released Tuesday by Texas Housers, a housing policy and advocacy group, found that Emergency Rental Assistance programs around the state varied widely in their success at distributing those funds — resulting in more than $30 million of aid lost when the federal government took it back.

The report, which looked at 10 of 37 local rent relief programs that emerged in cities and counties across Texas, found that staffing shortages, political opposition from local officials, a lack of experience running emergency assistance programs and immigrant communities’ general distrust in government outreach impacted how successful some programs were at getting the aid money to renters and landlords during the pandemic.

“We found that local context played a huge role in how well local jurisdictions were able to administer this money,” said Erin Hahn, a research analyst at Texas Housers who authored the report. “Smaller counties who didn’t have experience administering aid or access to partners struggled for months to get money out the door.”

The Texas Housers study compared programs in the cities of Dallas, El Paso, Houston and Laredo, as well as in Cameron, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Travis counties.

Texas distributed $983 million of its nearly $3.4 billion in federal Emergency Rental Assistance funding to cities and counties so they could channel the funds to renters and landlords. Many of the local officials in charge of distributing those funds had never administered anything similar before, especially at this scale, and had to build programs completely from scratch with little guidance.

This limited how effective some programs were at getting the money out quickly, Texas Housers found.

In Hidalgo County, along the U.S.-Mexico border, it took about four months for the federal funds to begin trickling out. The program eventually had more than $10 million — or about 20% of its funding — taken back by the U.S. Department of Treasury for not spending it quickly enough. Those funds were distributed elsewhere.

Jaime Longoria, the program’s executive director for the county, said part of the challenge was overcoming the region’s large immigrant population’s distrust of government programs, particularly if they required submitting documentation to participate.

Knowing this, Hidalgo County’s ERA program did not require people to submit formal documentation when they applied for aid. But it still took months to slowly build trust — a shared hurdle among border cities and counties with high immigrant populations, and for which the federal government didn’t provide additional guidance or leeway.

“We had many families that said they were afraid this would come back and affect their status for citizenship down the road, that someone would come and knock on their door in the night,” Longoria said.

As word spread, applications began to pick up, but not quickly enough. In January, the program’s funding was cut right as it was hitting its stride, Longoria said. He appealed the decision with the Treasury Department but was denied.

“We had trouble along the border gaining traction with people, and [our applications] peaked three or four months after everyone else did,” Longoria said. “Once they started to trust us it became a different story.”

Other places struggled with a lack of staffing, which made it impossible to sift through thousands of applications quickly. In Hays County, between Austin and San Antonio, fewer than 10 people — including part-time college students — were in charge of processing applications, which created a monthslong backlog, the report said.

Political opposition also hamstrung the program, according to the report. Rather than following the Treasury’s guidelines, which encouraged programs to make it as easy as possible to apply for aid and to let applicants self-certify that they were in need, the Hays County auditor required additional documentation that slowed down the process, like a government ID from every adult in the household instead of just the applicant, proof of financial hardship and documented risk of homelessness.

As a result, the Hays County program struggled to get up and running. It took more than five months for money to begin reaching renters and landlords.

Frustrated by the obstacles imposed by the Hays County auditor and by his limited staffing capacity, the ERA program’s director, Wesley Matthews, resigned in January.

Eventually, the federal government reclaimed $2.6 million — or 37% of the program’s funding — because the county did not spend it quickly enough. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were facing eviction in Hays County. About 30 evictions were filed every month in 2021.

Matthews said at the time that losing those funds hurt “the entire community,” KUT reported. “We should be fighting like heck to keep it here.”

Sam Benavides at Mano Amiga, an advocacy group in San Marcos, said many people who were eligible had their applications closed for minor documentation issues or without any explanation.

"It's free money from the federal government, it costs the county nothing, and they still failed to get it out to people who needed it," she said. "It's so disappointing that they allowed that money to go to waste."

This issue plagued the smaller and more conservative parts of the state examined in the report. Cameron, Hays and Hidalgo counties, as well as Laredo, lost a combined $17 million for missing spending deadlines.

Bigger cities analyzed in the report, on the other hand, had more experience running these types of programs and often had more extensive networks of community organizations to help with processing applications and reaching out to renters and landlords. Rather than losing money, big programs in places like the city of Dallas and Travis County, which includes Austin, got extra infusions after burning through all their initial funding.

The city of Houston and Harris County, which combined their rent relief funding to form a single program, stood out for how efficiently they got money to renters and landlords, according to the report. Just three months after getting its first infusion of funds, the program had spent all of its money and eventually received an additional $30 million to keep it going.

Houston and Harris County benefited from an already robust network of community organizations and their experience distributing CARES Act funding earlier in the pandemic, the report said.

This allowed some kinks to be worked out by the time ERA funding poured in, said Leah Barton, a consultant who helped lead the Houston and Harris County program.

Today, protections for renters against eviction have long lapsed, federal rent relief funds have dried up and evictions have returned to or surpassed pre-pandemic levels in many parts of the state.

“While [rental assistance] absolutely helped families and landlords, there are still too many people for whom housing is not affordable, as you can see from our eviction rates,” Barton said. “That is still an issue.”

The Texas Housers report encourages local officials to document and preserve the connections formed for the next time an emergency like this comes along, and to use their momentum as a foundation for other housing initiatives, like providing a right to counsel in eviction court, which several places around the state have successfully piloted, and constructing new affordable housing.

“Regardless of where jurisdictions started when emergency rental assistance came down the pipeline, they're all in a better situation now for the future,”said Hahn, the report’s author. “We are really encouraging them to not let this go to waste.”

From The Texas Tribune

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