Council: Cash on Hand

City’s RISE and RENT funds ready to deliver relief

Illustration via Getty Images

The city of Austin has begun to distribute millions of dollars in rent relief and direct cash assistance through the second round of its Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants (RENT) and Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) programs.

Applications for rental assistance through RENT 2.0 are open now; recipients will be selected through a randomized lottery, with the next drawing to be held Monday, Sept. 14, at noon. Appli­cants must live within the city limits, earn no more than 80% of the Austin median family income (for a four-person household, 80% of MFI is $78,100/year), and have faced economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That hardship can include the loss of a job or hours, or the need to take unpaid leave to recover from COVID-19 or to care for a relative as they recover. Households earning between 30% and 80% of Austin's MFI will receive one month's worth of rent, paid in full; households earning below 30% MFI (that's $29,300/year for four people) can have three months paid.

People without a Social Security number can apply for RENT aid, as can those with a nontraditional lease (such as residence at an extended-stay hotel). Applicants only need to apply once; those not selected in the Sept. 14 lottery will still be eligible for the next drawing.

The city has committed $17.75 million to RENT 2.0, with $13 million going to direct rent payments. A total of $1.28 million has been set aside for legal assistance to tenants facing eviction (last week's nationwide moratorium prevents landlords from initiating most eviction proceedings until Jan. 1), to help pay fees outside of rent, and for relocation services should a household seek to move. Nearly $500,000 will be spent on community outreach.

The RENT 1.0 funding was much smaller; the city received more than 11,000 applications, but was only able to award about $1.26 million. The first RENT 2.0 lottery was held on Aug. 26, and staff is currently issuing those payments to landlords. Funding will continue through January 2021 or until the money runs out.

The Council-created RISE fund has also been replenished with $9 million for direct cash payments; the city expects to help 4,500 households, each receiving $2,000. (Another $1 million has been allocated to set up and run the program.) RISE 2.0 applications will open on Sept. 14, and a phone bank is open now to answer any questions (512/714-6950; operators available from 7am-7pm). Applications must be submitted by Sept. 21 at 7pm, and a randomized lottery will be held between Sept. 23 and Oct. 6; applicants will be notified whether or not they were selected.

As for the direct cash assistance, the $15 million Council allocated for RISE 1.0 was awarded to established non­profits for distribution (first come, first served) to individuals in need. RISE 2.0 is instead using a similar model to the RENT fund; Family Independence Initiative and El Buen Samaritano, both of which received RISE 1.0 funds, will handle the distribution of funds via direct bank transfers or prepaid debit cards.

Adult residents of Austin or Travis County who have experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19 and are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level (that's $52,400/year for a four-person household) are eligible to apply. But there's an important caveat: People who have received city, state, or federal financial support within the past 30 days are not eligible. If you got RENT assistance on Sept. 14, you would not be eligible to receive RISE funds until Oct. 15.

Unlocking Affordability

At a meeting of Council's Housing and Planning Com­mit­tee held Tuesday, Sept. 8, staff shared some data on how the citywide density bonus program known as Afforda­bil­ity Unlocked has performed, one year after it opened for applications. Although only one project certified under the program has broken ground, another 26 have received certification and five are approaching the construction phase.

Staff estimates that a total of 2,721 new housing units will be built, 2,337 of which will be affordable. AU requires that, at a minimum, rental units be reserved for people making an average of 60% MFI or lower, with 20% of all units reserved for people earning 50% MFI or lower, for 40 years (ownership units must be priced at an average of 80% MFI).

Several people working to build affordable housing developments were at the meeting to share their experiences with the program. They all agreed that the projects they were working on would not be possible, or at least would not offer as many affordable units, were it not for AU. The primary benefits for developers are reduced parking requirements and increased height – both of which can make income-restricted housing economically viable to build.

Project Transitions is a nonprofit that provides housing and services to people in Austin living with HIV/AIDS; Executive Director Cynthia Herrera said a forthcoming expansion of its Roosevelt Gardens property would double the number of housing units on-site. "It's something that really would not have been possible without AU," Herrera told the committee. Project Transitions is also slated to break ground next spring on an AU project at 8007 Burnet Road that will bring 61 affordable homes with supportive services to North Austin.

In Other Business ...

Council held a brief meeting Sept. 3 where they approved $23 million for the Office of Real Estate Services to spend on land acquisitions related to projects in the Corridor Construction Program. Corridor Program Office Director Mike Trimble told Council the purchases will mostly consist of slivers of property to expand bike lanes, urban trails, sidewalks, and other forms of active transportation (none of the funding would be used for projects related to Project Connect). Also, the Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross neighborhood in East Austin, once home to Austin icon Willie Mae Kirk, was granted historic zoning status with a unanimous Council vote.

Council does not meet this week, but they’ll return Thursday, Sept. 17, with a lengthy agenda including some 22 zoning cases.

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