Austin’s rent assistance program could be here to stay after pandemic subsides

A view of Downtown Austin from Lady Bird Lake (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
A view of Downtown Austin from Lady Bird Lake (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)

A view of Downtown Austin from Lady Bird Lake (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)

Spurred by continued need amid the coronavirus’s economic devastation, Austin is preparing to launch its second attempt at a direct rent assistance program for households impacted by the pandemic and unable to pay housing costs. Officials say the unprecedented local program could remain a city service long after the infectious disease has left.

With $13 million allocated to direct rent assistance this time around, the revamped program seeks to serve 10 times as many Austinites as the city initially helped in May, according to Mandy DeMayo, an administrator with the city’s housing department. The application period will open on a yet unspecified date in August. Qualifying households must make under 80% of the median family income, which is $78,100 per year for a family of four.

Following the immediate economic downturn caused by the pandemic during the spring, city officials developed an early version of the program, which spent $1.2 million in city funds to help more than 1,000 vulnerable Austin households pay May’s rent. DeMayo said the latest iteration of the program, financed mostly through the federal coronavirus relief package, could help more than 2,000 households per month, starting with the first rent payment in September.

The program has budgeted for six months of rent assistance. Households making more than 30% of the median family income, which is $29,300 for a family of four, can qualify for only one month of rent assistance. Those making under the 30% mark can qualify for three months of rental assistance. Although it received pushback in May, the city will again use a lottery system to select which applicants receive rental assistance each month. DeMayo called it the most equitable system of selecting applicants.

The city and county have issued moratoriums on evictions that expire this week; however, District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar said he expects the city to extend its moratorium to Sept. 30. DeMayo said the city is spreading out assistance over the course of six months, from September into early 2021, because officials expect a wave of housing stability issues to afflict Austinites through the fall.

However, she also said that rental assistance programs were a topic of discussion long before the coronavirus arrived and that officials are looking at the current program as something that could have some permanence.

“Emergency rental assistance has ... always been a need,” DeMayo told the City Council Housing and Planning Committee on July 21. “This has kickstarted and laid a foundation for what we think will be an ongoing issue and a need that we can address as a community.”

Several of the program’s kinks are still being worked out as the city prepares to open the application period. Among them is whether households who received assistance in May will qualify for assistance this time around.