Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday doubled, to $30 million, the size of a COVID-19 relief fund aimed at helping the most vulnerable residents pay for housing, utilities, food and health care.
The fund will provide $1,200 for households with one to four residents, and $1,500 for larger families. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the program, estimated the program will help at least 20,000 households.
“The coronavirus pandemic has created both a health and financial crisis in the region,” Ellis said. “Many citizens are hurting and I think our duty as public servants is to help the most vulnerable residents, who are already living paycheck to paycheck.”
The three court’s three Democrats — Ellis, Precinct 2 Commissioner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, approved the program on a 3-2 party line vote.
The program, which tentatively was approved three weeks ago, gives priority to low-income residents, residents in the country illegally, victims of domestic violence and children aging out of foster care. It aims to assist residents who are ineligible for federal aid through the CARES Act or who need help beyond the $1,200 stimulus checks some taxpayers received.
The Greater Houston Community Foundation, which will administer the program for a 5 percent fee, will use a complex formula of socioeconomic factors to determine which residents are eligible for aid. Those include a community’s rate of COVID cases, joblessness, poverty and education. Commissioners Court adopted similar criteria to determine the order flood control projects are completed.
“This is the type of process that does prioritize equity,” said Renee Wizig-Barrios, chief philanthropy officer for the GHCF. She estimated the nonprofit would be able to disburse all payments within 45 days.
This metrics-based eligibility model is fairer than a first-come, first-served approach, Ellis said. He noted that the city of Houston’s $14 million rent relief fund was expended within 90 minutes of opening last week.
Several public speakers urged the court to approve the relief fund. Jennifer Hernandez of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades said many of the group’s members have been furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic.
“Harris County must step up to ensure those left behind by the CARES Act are protected from this crisis,” Hernandez said.
The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the program. Radack said he disagreed with the administrative fee, among other objections. Cagle unsuccessfully lobbied the Democrats to ensure funds went directly to rental payments, rather than renters to spend at their discretion.
Hidalgo said she had read research from similar funds around the country and world that concluded recipients were unlikely to spend aid on frivolous wants instead of needs.
The county will dip into its $254 million rainy day fund to pay for the fund. Commissioners Court also used that emergency account for a $10 million forgivable loan program for small businesses and a $12 million investment to expand mail voting during the pandemic.