San Antonio’s emergency housing assistance program, which has helped more than 28,000 households with cost-of-living expenses since last April, could expand to cover six months of rent or mortgage payments for residents struggling during the pandemic.
If ultimately approved by the City Council, the changes would apply to households who are in arrears with rent or mortgage payments, as well as cover the current month’s debt and one future month. Currently, the program pays up to two months of rent or mortgage payments for families or individuals making up to 80% of the area median income (AMI).
Cash grants, which are offered now in the third month of assistance, would be removed as an option under the revised program. Instead, the city wants to funnel more applicants to case management, connecting them to social services, such as SNAP benefits or childcare programs, depending on the need.
The revisions, which the council’s Culture and Neighborhood Services committee will discuss on Monday, coincides with a $46.7 million boost in rental assistance dollars as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress in December.
The city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department is proposing the changes after the program’s recipients overwhelmingly said in a survey conducted from early November to Jan. 1 that they needed more months of rent or mortgage covered.
Households who have already taken advantage of the program are also eligible, and would have their previous month added to the six-month total.
"If someone was approved for two months, they can get up to four additional months of assistance," said Vero Soto, director of the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD).
Currently, the program pays up to two months of rent or mortgage, and includes SAWS, CPS Energy, and internet bills, and up to $300 in cash for household making up to 50% of the area median income (AMI). In the third month, they receive $500 cash, only. Families or individuals making between 51% and 80% AMI only receive rent or mortgage assistance (no utilities) for the first two months, and $250 in the third month.
The revised program would essentially offer the same benefits, but for up to six months, and with no cash option.
To date, the city has approved emergency housing assistance for slightly more than 28,000 San Antonio households, which equals 75,362 people. Of that total, 85% make less than 30% AMI.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
A total of $70.5 million has been spent in the program as of Jan. 30. Last year, from April to Oct. 1, the city allocated roughly $86 million toward housing assistance. The incoming federal dollars, which the City Council is expected to formally accept in mid-February, will boost the program’s total to roughly $133.6 million.
One of the main reasons the city is moving away from providing cash assistance, which had been offered through a national nonprofit called the Family Independence Initiative, is because the new infusion of federal dollars can only be spent on rent and utility aid.
Instead, applicants will be set up with a "benefit navigator" in the city's Department of Human Services, which will offer case management for the individual or family. The housing assistance program’s application will be augmented to include questions that will give city staff a better idea of the applicants’ needs.
"We really want to focus on things we cannot offer through the (housing assistance) program," Edward Gonzales, NHSD assistant director, told the Housing Commission on Wednesday.
During the Housing Commission meeting, Commissioner Taneka Johnson asked whether families could receive cash assistance in the form of a gift card.
"Yes, we would consider a gift card cash assistance," Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said. "We have access to those through our referral system. Once they get to a benefits navigator, that assessment may include a recommendation to include a gift card."
Last week, the City Council agreed to include $2.2 million in funding from the state’s emergency rental assistance program, which the city will use to assist families who live inside Bexar County, but outside San Antonio’s city limits.
After the council’s Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting on Monday, there will be an opportunity for public comment on Feb. 8. The full council is scheduled to consider the revisions on Feb. 18.
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