In response to the coronavirus pandemic and widespread economic turmoil, several major cities and counties in Texas have implemented direct financial assistance programs for their residents. Many programs utilize federal relief funds from the CARES Act, the stimulus bill signed into law in March 2020. How these relief dollars are distributed depends on new administrative systems that local governments have designed and implemented, often in a matter of weeks.
The choices that local governments make largely reflect the different challenges that they face and the unique mix of resources that they have available. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. However, over the course of 13 interviews with local officials, administrators, and experts in nine major cities and counties across Texas, our organization identified critical “lessons learned” to guide local governments as they establish new emergency rental relief programs. This ultimately culminated in a white paper identifying the successes and failures in rental relief disbursement. The following were the three most important takeaways from these meetings.
- Emphasize equity. The need is vast and universal, but most keenly felt among residents who are below 50% of the Area Median Income. Income caps ensure that funds reach the most vulnerable. Equity also means equal access. Programs need to be advertised widely, with online media, radio, phone calls, and physical flyers; advertised in multiple languages and among hard-to-reach populations. For each design choice that a local government makes, the government should ask: Who does this help, and who does it exclude?
- Utilize existing administrative resources, including local nonprofits. Many local governments struggled under the administrative burden of running a large new program. Partnering with housing authorities, as well as local nonprofits, mitigates this issue. Several cities and counties achieved success by soliciting local nonprofits to act as sub-grantees, as they had prior experience distributing relief funds and were plugged into community networks.
- Prepare for the long term. As eviction moratoria end, expanded unemployment benefits elapse, and savings get spent, the crisis will deepen. Local governments should build rental relief programs with an eye to the long term, which means allocating adequate resources to the administrative task. It also means staying connected to other jurisdictions who are going through the same thing and might have valuable information to share.
The housing crisis in Texas is nothing new. Low-income renters live on the edge of a cliff, and every downturn threatens to push them off. The Gap, an annual report published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, shows that only 29 affordable housing units exist for every 100 Extremely-Low-Income households in Texas—a deficit of over 600,000 units.
Now, with unprecedented unemployment levels, local governments must step in to protect their most vulnerable residents. Governments that invest in this population’s security today will see dividends paid many times over in economic and social wellbeing. Local governments should take the current crisis as an encouragement to develop solutions to the underlying problems of housing scarcity and rising rent costs. Housing security is not just about mitigating the current crisis, but also about developing the tools to ensure better lives for the Texans of the future.
Read ‘Rental relief programs in major cities and counties‘ belowRental-relief-recommendations-v4.0-wo-es