The number of San Antonio households who have turned to the city for help paying rent or their mortgage has risen 6,756% in the last two weeks, according to city officials.
The program, known formally as the risk mitigation policy, was approved by the City Council in 2018 and had been receiving roughly 57 inquiries a week before the coronavirus outbreak—an already staggering figure considering the program is first come, first served with limited funding.
Last week, the program had roughly $400,000 left in its coffer for the next six months, or through the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30. The average amount distributed per household is $1,000, according to the city's Housing and Neighborhood Services Department (NHSD). Doing the math, that's roughly 400 families that would be served through the end of September under normal circumstances. It's also roughly 900 families not being served.
That was before the current pandemic.
Last week, the program received more than 2,000 inquiries. From last Saturday, April 4, to Wednesday, the city fielded 3,908 inquiries from San Antonians who have lost their job or have been furloughed, or have had their hours reduced during the crisis.
Some relief came on Monday when the San Antonio Housing Trust Foundation, which is tethered to the city's affordable housing nonprofit of the same name, allocated $500,000 to the risk mitigation program, which disperses up to $3,500 per household for rental or mortgage assistance, as well as utilities.
The program evolved from the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force as a means to prevent resident displacement in gentrifying communities, but now takes on greater meaning in this epoch of the coronavirus. It has drawn phone calls from the cities of Houston, Fort Worth and Austin, asking NHSD how the program works.
In San Antonio, NHSD officials are expecting another $500,000 from the San Antonio Housing Trust Foundation, an amount being leveraged to recruit same-sized contributions from philanthropic groups. The city is also expecting federal funding from the CARES Act, the coronavirus aid package Congress passed late last month. It's also looking to tap into local tax increment reinvestment zone dollars, mechanisms traditionally used for infrastructure upgrades in their respective areas of the city.
[ Anyone can donate to the risk mitigation fund. To donate, visit helpsatx.org and indicate you want to support the "risk mitigation fund." ]
Before the outbreak, many used the risk mitigation program to ward off eviction, as the program pays the landlord directly, but going through the eviction process is not a requirement.
To qualify, residents must provide proof of hardship, which can include a termination letter from their employer; an employer letter indicating a reduction in hours or furlough; or proof the resident applied for unemployment benefits.
The resident should also make less than 100% of the area median income (AMI), which is $71,000 for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area. The city also has federal funding at its disposal, including Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars, which can be used for housing assistant. Its income threshold is 80% AMI.
To keep up with the skyrocketing demand, NHSD has doubled its staff administering the risk mitigation program from 8 to 16, with another 25 incoming over the next two weeks, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told the City Council earlier this week.
During the council work session, Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked officials to take advantage of the application process for housing assistance to see what other needs the community is asking for at this time—to which Houston said they were.
"We know that shelter is the pressure point, but it's not just shelter," Nirenberg said referring to food insecurity or domestic abuse.
Last week, the San Antonio Apartment Association announced it was asking its members to forgive 25% of rent for tenants who receive aid from the city, a move meant to stretch the city's limited dollars.
The risk mitigation program has drawn some criticism from housing advocates who were already working closely with NHSD to help shape it further. The group, which includes Jessica O. Guerrero, chair of the mayor-appointed Housing Commission, has asked that tenants receive the funding directly. The request is being vetted by the city attorney's office, said NHSD Director Vero Soto.
Another of the group's members, Maureen Galindo, a downtown resident who has received assistance from the program before, said the apartment association's involvement adds another layer of bureaucracy at a time when residents need housing assistance as fast as possible.
"Our proposal is: Can we cut out the landlord altogether so we can save all that money and labor and (have it) be put in the hands of the tenant," Galindo said.
In response, Soto suggested such a change in policy would add another step to the process: Proof from the tenant that they used the funding to pay the rent, mortgage or utilities. Soto and Houston said they're looking to streamline the process while also seeking info that may help applicants in other ways, such as filing for unemployment benefits.
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Here are the latest area median income (AMI) levels for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to know more about how AMI works? Click here.
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» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» For background on the risk mitigation fund, read: Is San Antonio doing enough to address displacement?
» Evictions, property tax foreclosures in Bexar County suspended due to COVID-19 concerns
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» How San Antonio’s taquerias are hurting during coronavirus outbreak
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» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town