As more people file for unemployment and despair widens, the City Council dug deeper and came up with millions more to help struggling San Antonians pay for basic necessities, including gas, groceries and housing.
Originally set at $1 million, the city’s Risk Mitigation Fund was expected to swell to $15.8 million with approval Thursday from the council. The fund was started in 2018 to help residents make rent or mortgage payments.
Instead, the council voted 10-1 to allocate $25 million for the fund, rebranded as the COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, now covering numerous basic needs in addition to housing.
“We have a city that ranks among the highest in poverty,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “So we know when a pandemic strikes and a crisis hits, it’s going to exacerbate the challenges that are already present here.”
Under the new program, residents grappling with bills they can’t pay will be eligible to receive up to $3,500 to cover their rent or mortgage; $1,500 for utility expenses; and up to $300 cash for things such as food, gasoline, medicine and access to the internet.
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City Manager Erik Walsh said San Antonio’s efforts to build the Risk Mitigation Fund made it easier to create the new program.
“We have long-standing programs and partnerships with local nonprofits, community groups and housing providers so that we can together help more residents,” Walsh said, calling the new program “the most comprehensive … in the state.”
Money for the new program comes from federal and local funds.
“It’s a huge increase in funds but not a drastic increase in programs, and I think that’s important to note — that we have been doing this for a while,” Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said.
The total being allocated for the program looked much different a week ago.
When the program was presented to the City Council, officials recommended using $15.8 million, primarily from the federal Community Development Block Grant and the CARES Act.
But Councilman Roberto Treviño said that simply wouldn’t be enough.
So staffers started looking at other city funds they could tap to increase money available in the program. As a result, Treviño tacked on an amendment adding another $9.2 million in city funds to new program — bringing the total to $25 million.
The additional funding will come from the city’s Parking Enterprise Fund, various Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corporation funds, the San Antonio Housing Trust Finance Corporation and a reallocation of funds from the San Antonio Housing Trust Under 1 Roof program.
Not everyone was in favor of the additional funds.
Councilman Clayton Perry cast the lone vote against the program.
“I understand there is a lot of need here in this city, but this council has routinely said it is a data-driven council. We look at the data. We look at the resources and then fit the resources to that need,” the councilman said.
Perry said he’s in favor of the program’s purpose, but wants to see how many people apply before adding more city funds to it.
Walsh said, however, that it’s important to have the safety net in place before the start of the month, when most people are required to pay rent and other bills. He said the City Council will receive regular updates on the number of people applying and using the program.
“We will have an understanding, more than what we have now, to quantify what the need is,” Walsh added. “But, I think it is safe to say there is a need right now.”
Before March, the city received on average 57 inquiries a week for housing assistance. Last week, there were 5,370 requests for help.
At the time of Thursday’s meeting, officials said 1,400 households had been approved for the new program. The average amount received by each household was $1,393, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.
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To be eligible for assistance, a participant must be a resident of San Antonio, must meet certain income guidelines based on the size of the household and must show proof of financial hardship, such as loss of job or reduction in hours worked.
For example, a family of four must have an income at or below 100 percent of the San Antonio-New Braunfels area median income, which is $72,000. Proof of financial hardship includes a termination letter from an employer, a letter advising of a reduction in hours or an application for unemployment.
The city then will conduct an assessment to determine the exact amount of financial assistance available to the household.
The program will end July 31, unless the council opts to extend it.
“Please know this, we will be working every single day, as hard as we possibly can, in different structures of teamwork across the city and county to make sure we take care of our people first,” Nirenberg said. “At the end of the day, how we survive this crisis is whether or not we, as a community, have taken care of our people.”
Residents who need emergency assistance to pay rent or mortgage or any of the other expenses covered by the new program should call 210-207-5910 or visit sanantonio.gov/NHSD.