CORONAVIRUS IN AUSTIN: Questions remain over how city will spend $270 million in virus aid

COVID-19 News ,

Statesman - Austin City Council members agreed Thursday on a broad framework for spending $270 million in coronavirus relief funding but have not decided exactly how much will go directly to individuals.
Details about rental assistance and other aid to individuals are expected to be worked out in the next week ahead of another council meeting next week focused on the city’s COVID-19 response.

Mayor Steve Adler said the remaining questions come down to whether the city will provide more direct relief to individuals hit by the coronavirus, as well as where that money will come from and the amount to be included.

Of the $270 million, the city expects to use about $170 million from the federal CARES Act. The remaining $100 million comes from a mixture of FEMA and local funds.

A framework presented by city staffers on Thursday divided funding priorities into three main categories — $105.5 million for emergency response, $62.9 million for medical and public health funds and $103.2 million in economic support.

Council members largely agreed on those three large funding buckets, but line items within those categories could change.

Council members said they think the city is on the right track, but several said more direct assistance to people is needed, as many are out of work and struggling to pay for things like rent, medical bills and groceries, and have less access to help than others.

Council members said money could be moved from funding for creatives or small businesses to provide more individual support, but cautioned there is not much excess to go around.

Proposed big-ticket items presented Thursday include $23.8 million for the RENT program, which began in early May with a rental lottery with $1.25 million. As of noon Thursday, 1,549 applications from more than 10,000 applicants had been approved for assistance through the program.

Other line items included $25.5 million in small business rent aid, $15.5 million in financial and direct support and $14.5 million for staffing at five protective lodging sites through the end of the year.

Chunks of funding already have been rolled out in programs including the $15 million RISE Fund, which offers relief to individuals and families through local nonprofits, and the $18 million ANCHOR Fund, which provides funding, grants or loans to businesses, nonprofits and childcare centers.

Council members also have authorized spending millions on rental assistance and relief for musicians, venues and other creative spaces that have seen business dry up amid bans on gatherings that will likely last through the end of the year.

Even as the economy has begun the process of reopening, the need for help at nearly every level still remains high. Many local businesses could need to modify their buildings to allow for better social distancing, and resources for personal protective equipment and testing will be needed through the rest of the year.

Disparities also have emerged, including overrepresentation of the Hispanic and African American communities in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, and gaps in health care access, insurance coverage and paid sick leave that the city hopes to tackle, at least in part, with targeted spending.

Discussion on the funding plan will continue during a work session on Tuesday, followed by a vote on Thursday.