Council Recap: (A Little More) Help Is On Its Way

Relief to include direct cash aid to struggling Austinites

At its meeting Thursday, April 9, City Council approved unanimously $15 million of relief for low-income Austinites thrown into financial turmoil by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money is intended primarily for people left behind by federal relief packages, or who simply need more help than those efforts will provide. The resolution authorizes City Manager Spencer Cronk to expand existing contracts with the city’s nonprofit partners to distribute the aid.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our communities that people need help now,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who introduced the resolution in collaboration with Council Member Greg Casar. The goal is to get those in need relief with a focus on “equity and expediency,” Garza added, and the best way to do that is through existing social service contracts.

Earlier in the week, the city’s economic forecasters projected the Austin metro area could lose more than 260,000 jobs during the COVID-19 economic downturn. The workers hardest hit will be in the food and hospitality industries.

How the aid will be distributed, and to which nonprofits, is still being worked out. At Thursday's meeting, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said her office would release more information on the application process today April 10. APH plans to begin disbursing the money in the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) fund by April 20, in time to help people pay rent on May 1.

A Friday morning press release said APH would be working with the city’s Equity Office to “ensure funds are provided to community-based organizations providing services to our marginalized communities.” Social service providers should email RISEFunding@AustinTexas.gov for more information.

The resolution adopted by Council outlines criteria that APH should consider when identifying nonprofits for RISE funding: those that primarily help people with incomes at 200% or lower of the federal poverty level (that’s $52,400 for a family of four); that are already helping people who have lost income or work due to COVID-19;, or that provide help to people on other federal programs like SNAP or Medicaid.

During the meeting’s public comment period, several callers advocating for passage of the RISE Fund urged Council to use the money to help marginalized communities, especially for those who are undcoumented and cannot access unemployment or other federal programs, let alone any stimulus money.

Carmen Vega told Council through a Spanish translator, “It’s hard times for all of us. We’re not going to get help from the federal stimulus package,” Vega said, “and I know that through this proposal, I could get some help to be able to make my payments for the internet and for my phone. It’s not a luxury, it’s something we really need for our children’s classes. This would help me breathe a little more in peace.”

About half of the $15 million is to be used for direct financial relief via prepaid debit or credit cards or bank transfers. Leading up to Thursday’s meeting, a groundswell of support built for direct cash assistance from the city to meet residents’ urgent needs. A letter sent by Grassroots Leadership – and co-signed by more than 200 advocacy groups – said, “By allowing impacted families to make their own financial decisions, we are inviting others to respect people’s agency and allow them the opportunity to decide what works best for them.” Advocates had urged that at least $10 million be directed toward cash assistance.

The letter, and some speakers during public comment, also encouraged a partnership between the city and the Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit that helps low-income families connect with each other and access financial investment and other resources to grow income and assets within their communities. Some of the assistance FII provides to families is through direct cash investment.

FII has also partnered with the Charles Koch-backed network of charities, Stand Together (formerly the Seminar Network) – which attempts to reduce poverty through what it calls “venture philanthropy” – to launch an online cash transfer platform providing relief to people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stand Together invested in the platform through a $5 million grant to help get it started.

The groups calling for the city to partner with FII did not specifically name this new program, known as #GiveTogetherNow (their hashtag), but some also did not appear to be aware of FII’s partnership with the Koch charity network. “As far as we know, [FII is] one of the few entities that have a direct payment platform where 100% of the funds go to people in need in the form of cash aid, and they have also pledged to absorb any processing fees,” Maria Reza with Grassroots Leadership wrote us via email. “We are not familiar with FII’s national efforts nor with Stand Together, but we do believe it is extremely important for the sake of transparency they address this matter.”

But Council did not discuss any partnership with FII to distribute direct financial aid, and nothing was added to Garza’s resolution to that effect. Any direct aid will be funneled through existing partnerships with nonprofits, which will be required to provide the city with descriptive demographic data on aid recipients, and to provide a “mechanism to audit all expenditures.”

In other COVID-19 relief, Council approved unanimously the use of $10 million in Austin Energy and Austin Water funds to help customers (including those outside the city). Users can expect to see lower rates, as more people are forced to work from home, or are home without work; and the utilities’ customer assistance programs will be expanded to help more people with their bills.

A separate resolution to close a loophole allowing payday lenders to charge predatory interest rates was also approved unanimously. Language added by Mayor Steve Adler also directs Cronk to expand support to help people file their income taxes. People cannot receive federal stimulus money unless they have filed a tax return in the past two years, so Cronk is directed to return to Council with new contracts or expansions of existing agreements to help people meet that need.

The big non-COVID news coming out of the meeting is that the city will appeal a district court ruling that derailed the Land Development Code revision as we know it. The ruling from District Judge Jan Soifer, issued March 18, voided Council’s first two votes on the new LDC, and indicated the only way forward would be for a new LDC to be approved by a three-fourths majority of Council – nine votes – instead of the seven it gained on first and second reading. The city would also have to send out notification of a zoning change to every property owner in Austin.

As expected, CMs Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, and Leslie Pool tried to quash the appeal – which the city’s lawyers would routinely file when handed an adverse court ruling – or, failing that, to ask the court to delay when an appeal must be filed. Both motions failed on 4-7 votes.

The four CMs argued that now was not the time to commit to a lengthy and costly appeal. “I don’t think this is the time to be fighting our residents in court,” Alter told her colleagues. And in a statement following the meeting, the four CMs wrote, “It will be several months before the community is able to focus on the LDC revision. When the effort is re-initiated, we strongly urge that the Council respond collaboratively.”

On that point, Adler seems to be in agreement. At the meeting, he said “I support the appeal, but the real emphasis needs to be on discussing these issues and seeing if there is a good resolution to the community that gets us to a better place.” He said his support of the appeal is to establish legal precedent regarding comprehensive land-use code revisions for Texas cities. It’s the city’s position that Soifer’s ruling makes such rewrites impossible, if every property owner could protest changes to their own zoning or (through a valid petition) that of nearby properties.

Meanwhile, the LDC rewrite team is pressing forward with its work on a third draft, based on recommendations from Council at second reading, with another staff report explaining why each change was made. “The purpose of completing these reference documents is to assure the project is in a state that can be utilized in the future when, and if, a path forward is desired by City Council,” the team wrote in an email.

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