Council approves $6.9M in agreements for remaining RISE funds

COVID-19 News ,

Austin Monitor City Council doled out nearly $6.9 million to 12 social services organizations in a unanimous vote Thursday, spending the remainder of the $15 million Relief in a State of Emergency, or RISE, fund approved by Council on April 9.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza sponsored the fund with a resolution last month. It is intended to meet a variety of needs, from food and household goods to medical expenses, rent and utility bills not otherwise met by other relief efforts, like the federal CARES Act stimulus package.

Community advocates praised the RISE fund Thursday for what it has enabled social services organizations to accomplish for residents who may otherwise have been left out of relief efforts. With that flexibility in mind, Garza said she had expected the city budget office to funnel some of the CARES Act’s $170 million Coronavirus Relief Fund into the RISE fund as part of its $270 million coronavirus spending framework.

“I was disappointed to see that the recommended spending framework for our federal Covid-19 relief funds did not include an additional allocation for the RISE fund, and I have heard that echoed throughout the community,” Garza told the Austin Monitor after Thursday’s vote. “With such overwhelming and immediate need, it seems clear to me that we should prioritize quick and direct relief to those who need it the most, which is what we designed the RISE fund to do.”

The $15 million was allocated from the city’s General Fund emergency reserves, but an Austin Public Health representative said the department expects a majority of those expenses to be eligible for replenishing through the Coronavirus Relief Fund or FEMA reimbursement.

Some of Thursday’s funds went to previous RISE participants like Workers Defense Fund and Survive2Thrive, but the majority was awarded to new applicants. Central Texas Food Bank received $2 million and Caritas of Austin and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul were each approved for $1 million. Organizations receiving lesser amounts include the Austin Diaper Bank, Family Eldercare, Meals on Wheels & More, Workers Assistance Program, No More No Más, Muslim Community Support Services, and the Financial Literacy Coalition of Central Texas.

With the $15 million allocated, Bethany Carson of Grassroots Leadership asked Council to consider distributing its Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars more equitably than has been proposed.

“Currently the proposed framework does not allocate money into the RISE fund, which is the only city fund that has helped with direct financial assistance to community members,” Carson said. “What we have passed so far, we are incredibly appreciative for. However, it only scrapes the surface of this ongoing economic crisis that is hitting people who are disproportionately impacted – immigrants, people of color – much harder than other community members.”

Like Carson, Monica Guzmán, policy director for Go Austin/Vamos Austin, or GAVA, demanded at least $70 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund be allocated to the RISE fund and distributed by the Equity Office in the form of prepaid gift cards, direct deposits or bank-to-bank transfers. The city’s current virus spending framework allocates $101.2 million across all categories of community economic support.

The Equity Office previously received $2 million from the RISE fund, but there was no new money for the office Thursday. Kandace Vallejo, executive director of Youth Rise Texas, said the Equity Office dollars allowed her organization to reach youth and families impacted by incarceration who are now also dealing with Covid-19. Youth Rise applied for RISE funds of its own, she said, but was denied.

“Without funds made available again, our people may not have access to other kinds of funds that are becoming available because of maybe not having the social capital or the ability to wait and call back agencies multiple times.”
As of early this week, Austin Public Health had already spent about $8.8 million of the RISE funds, distributed across 11 organizations including the Equity Office.

Several community advocates argued in favor of an alternative solution to adding more money to the RISE fund during Thursday’s meeting.
Rev. Miles Brandon of St. Julian of Norwich Episcopal Church spoke in favor of Austin Interfaith’s recommendation that the city instead add $40 million to the coronavirus spending plan to cover rental assistance for the immediate future, using a mixture of direct payments to landlords and cash assistance.

“RISE effectively targets those that are left out of the stimulus payments, while direct rental assistance targets a much broader group of low-income residents who may have gotten some stimulus help but still are racking up soul-crushing debt in the form of unpaid rent,” Brandon said.
As of now, the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department has settled on $18.6 million for rental assistance, a figure several Council members have said is too low for the community’s needs. Council has discussed holding a special meeting next week to consider the proposed funding framework and provide additional direction on the best use of federal funds.