San Antonio City Council will vote next week on a $15.8 million boost to a rent and mortgage housing assistance program that will begin including gift cards for households struggling to pay for groceries, internet access, and gas during the coronavirus pandemic.

The new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program draws money from both federal and local funds and uses the same eligibility criteria as the City’s Risk Mitigation Fund that it established in 2018 as part of its affordable housing policy.

That $1 million annual fund has already paid out roughly $650,000 to needy residents this year. Calls for housing assistance have jumped from an average of 47 per week before the pandemic to 5,300 last week, said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.

“This policy has been very successful,” Houston told Council during its meeting Thursday, “but we need additional funding.”

That additional funding will come with expanded uses – including money for internet service, groceries, and gas – if Council approves the measure next week.

Payments for rent, mortgage, internet, and utility assistance will be paid directly
to the landlord, financial institution, internet provider, or utility provider, Houston said. Each household that qualifies for help by demonstrating an economic hardship also will receive a gift card worth up to $300 to use for groceries and gas.

The federal funding for the program, totaling about $13 million, requires that payments go directly to the person or entity owed, Houston said. The funds can’t be given directly to individuals.

The City's new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program will follow the same income eligibility and proof of hardship requirements.
The City’s new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program will follow the same income eligibility and proof of hardship requirements as its Risk Mitigation Fund. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Local money ($2.8 million) taken from the existing affordable housing budget and the San Antonio Housing Trust, however, is more flexible and can be used for gift cards and other unusual housing situations, she said. An example would be if an undocumented resident does not have a formal lease with a landlord or isn’t eligible due to federal restrictions.

“We can work around that,” Houston said.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the City likely will need more, flexible funding for the program and suggested that the City dip into its $120 million emergency reserve to provide $10 million more for housing assistance.

“If a landlord does not accept the program [payments from the city] it puts the renter at risk,” Treviño said. “I’d prefer to see a third party to help distribute the funds.”

Since the state of emergency was declared, none of the 150 new landlords that the City has contacted to receive funds on behalf of a tenant have rejected payments, Houston said. The city has about 400 landlords who have received payments since the program was established in 2018.

“That could change. We have more landlords to contact,” she said.

The City's new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program will follow the same income eligibility and proof of hardship requirements.
The City’s new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program will follow the same income eligibility and proof of hardship requirements as its Risk Mitigation Fund. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

City Manager Erik Walsh and several other Council members said they don’t think it’s time to use the City’s reserve funding. “It is our last line of defense,” Walsh said.

If Council wants to put more money in the housing assistance program, he added, “then my recomendation is we go back and make additional cuts [to the annual budget instead].”

The City suspended $82 million in operations earlier this month and furloughed 270 employees the following week.

Using the City’s reserve could impact the city’s bond rating, but that’s not the primary concern, Walsh said. That money needs to be used to keep the City operating in case of an emergency.

“We’re headed into an unprecedented level of uncertainty,” said Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer. “We don’t know how long the crisis will last or what the recovery will look like.”

Treviño told the Rivard Report after the meeting that he will submit a formal request to use reserve funding ahead of next Thursday’s vote on the program.

How much housing assistance is needed hasn’t been determined yet, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after the meeting. “Then we have to identify how we can fill it. There’s a lot of options to discuss right now. … [Using reserves] reduces any likelihood that would be able to withstand an emergency in the future. If we don’t have to do that, we really don’t want to do that.”

San Antonio is fortunate to have funding and programming for affordable housing in its budget long before the pandemic, Walsh said.

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“We were able to readjust that and pivot utilizing those programs,” he said. “We’ve got processes already in place. I think that puts us in a fortunate position to be able to push money out … quickly to folks that need it.”

Nirenberg prioritized housing during his first term and he established a housing task force that ultimately led to the formation of the Risk Mitigation Fund and other programs in 2018. In 2017, the City’s budget included $8 million for affordable housing programs. This year, it’s $35 million.

“It’s not enough, but we have been doing some important work to prepare ourselves,” Nirenberg said.

Residents who need emergency housing assistance can call 210-207-5910 or visit www.sanantonio.gov/NHSD. The City, Housing Trust, and San Antonio Area Foundation is also coordinating donations to the emergency fund. Smaller donations can be made online or by texting HousingHelpSA to 41444. Larger donations will be collected via email: covid19@saafdn.org.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com