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County approves millions toward emergency rental assistance

Community ,

The county is receiving $10.7 million in federal relief funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, designated for an emergency rental assistance program, or ERAP. In January it was announced that the county would receive the funding and yesterday the Commissioners Court unanimously approved implementation of the program.

Sherri Fleming, county executive with County Health and Human Services, oversaw discussion of the plan, explaining its various details to commissioners.

“I’ll just sort of cut to the chase here,” Fleming said. “Staff is recommending that we move forward and implement the emergency rental assistance program with a contractor, as provided by the U.S. Treasury, which would include allowing applications to be initiated by landlords as well as tenants, in accordance with the program guidelines.”

The program would help provide rent for applicants within the county, with eligibility based on a variety of guidelines.

Households with incomes of no more than 80 percent of the area median income qualify for assistance. In addition, “They must also be qualified for unemployment benefits, experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant cost, and then also experience other financial hardship,” Fleming explained.

These requirements aren’t standalone: At least one individual in the home must also demonstrate either a risk of homelessness, housing instability, or unsafe or unhealthy living conditions.

Applicants with less than 50 percent of the area median income will receive priority acceptance to the program, as well as applicants in households with at least one resident who has been unemployed for over 90 days.

Fleming also noted that the ERAP plan, as written, does not permit assistance with paying mortgages.

“We think it’s important, along with the program guidelines, to focus the program on rental assistance,” Fleming said. “HHS continues to have significant funding for utility assistance both from the federal government, as well as local utility providers,” she added.

This differed from the CARES Act, Commissioner Brigid Shea noted, invoking past policies that enabled local governments to more broadly target their federal assistance.

“I’m wondering if we could shift the rental assistance applications from the CARES emergency rental and mortgage assistance program to this new program, because that older program allows us to help people with mortgage assistance who meet the income qualification,” Shea said. “The reason I ask that is because I just think it would be tragic for people to lose their homes because of Covid. People are already struggling so mightily with their basic finances, but if they have a home, they have something of great value.”

Fleming confirmed that HHS was exploring a way to transfer rental assistance applications that the county has already received.

“We would share those applications with our new program and then we would be able to prioritize the mortgage assistance with the resources that the commissioners have made available to the community,” Fleming said.