At an Aug. 31 meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, county staff described a race to pay out 65% of its total roughly $10.7 million allocation from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 before the end of the month. If that goal is not met, any unspent funds will have to be returned to the federal government.
As of Aug. 31, the county had paid $1.3 million to tenants and landlords whose ability to pay or receive rent had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, accounting fro 23.74% of its Sept. 30 target goal of $5.7 million. Around $1.18 million more is pending, moving the county close to 44% of the way to its target.
"We've tried to do everything we can to move this program along, to expedite the processing of payments," said Lawrence Lyman, division director of Travis County Health & Human Services.
In an effort to speed up distribution of funds to qualified renters and landlords, Lyman said county staff was increasingly moving toward allowing tenants to self-attest their qualification for the program through written testimony and using data from existing government programs to verify the information provided, thereby creating a less time-consuming and burdensome paperwork process.
"If we look at a list and say, 'You're going to have to [provide] a lengthy list of paperwork,' it's likely they may say, 'Well, I don't have time to do that,'" Lyman said.
Commissioner Brigid Shea recommended that staff identify apartment complexes where 10 or more tenants might be behind on rent in order to issue bulk payments and speed up the delivery of funds—a tactic Lyman said was in progress.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown expressed interest in transferring some $2 million to the city of Austin, which has paid out its own federal rent assistance relatively quickly through the use of a contractor, Brown said. When Travis County originally launched its 2021 ERAP program in April, commissioners asked staff to prioritize county residents outside the city of Austin, but Brown said Aug. 31 that disbursing the money as quickly as possible should now take precedence.
"In my opinion, we've all got the same taxpayers in a large amount," Brown said. "We all know that the federal courts decided that the federal [eviction moratorium] order is not in effect, and so I think we need to do everything that we can to prevent more families from being evicted, and part of that is us making sure that we're getting this out as quickly as possible."
Commissioners did not vote on a specific amount to transfer to the city, but did vote unanimously to direct county staff to work with the county attorney's office to consider the option of working with other entities on distribution of the funds.
Austin City Council signaled during its Sept. 2 meeting its intention to assist in disbursing the county's ERAP funds with a consent motion authorizing City Manager Spencer Cronk to enter into an agreement with the county to help meet the Sept. 30 goal.