Jefferson Co. still has millions for rent, utility help

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Vehicles line up during a rent assistance event through the joint Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the Texas Rent Relief Program at the Greenspoint Harvest Time Church Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Houston.
Vehicles line up during a rent assistance event through the joint Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the Texas Rent Relief Program at the Greenspoint Harvest Time Church Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Houston.Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The good news is Jefferson County still has plenty of emergency funding left to aid local families facing eviction, but the pace of that distribution so far is placing its relief programs in question.

Jefferson County is one of 16 Texas cities and counties that haven’t distributed at least 30% of the money they were given for rent relief — potentially risking the rest of their money being recouped by the federal government.

As of Oct. 22, the county has granted $1 million of the $7.6 million it received in December of 2020 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. So far, 310 local residents have received help for either rent, utilities or other qualified needs.

In the meantime, court data acquired by the non-profit advocacy group Texas Housers showed that around 400 families were given eviction notices between June and August of this year.

But, Jefferson County Auditor Patrick Swain said the administrator of the county’s program, the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission, already is working on its plan of action to keep the funding.

As a part of the plan, counties and cities that didn’t meet performance standards have to explain how they will overcome previous problems with distribution, which Swain said came down to available infrastructure.

“We weren’t set up to be able to reach out to people in need and process all of those applications early on,” Swain said. “There were also a lot of nonprofits we reached out to that said they couldn’t handle over $7 million dollars. That’s where SETRPC stepped up.”

Adding to the issues of promptly delivering aid was the fact that essentially two programs were running at once — a county-led relief program and a state-ran one.

Swain said that counties under a certain population threshold had their funds managed by the state through its larger relief program, Texas Rent Relief, which meant places like Jefferson County also had to make sure there weren't duplicate applications being filed.

Administrators of Texas Rent Relief announced that Friday at 5 p.m. would be the last available time to make an application for state relief, which will put more emphasis on the county and city-ran programs as families continue to experience economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To date, the total requests for assistance now exceed all (Texas Rent Relief) funds available, demonstrating just how great the need is in Texas,” the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said in an email to the Houston Chronicle.

The state had received $1.9 billion from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Moving forward, Swain said administrators at SETRPC have a plan to contract with six predominant nonprofits in Jefferson County that already have support networks and the trust of vulnerable families in the area.

Using their expertise, SETRPC hopes to streamline the process so the agencies are able to essentially hand up applications from their clients that are ready to process, increasing the reach of the emergency programs and speeding up the distribution of aid.

Advocates like Texas Housers are pushing for underperforming areas to use the deadline as motivation to review the Treasury Department’s best practices and push distribution forward.

“It is not Jefferson County local governments that will suffer if these funds are recaptured by the Treasury,” representatives for Texas Housers wrote in a statement. “ It will be low-income residents who are evicted because they won’t have these funds to pay the rent. It is essential that the county act on this time-sensitive opportunity to submit a plan to keep these funds available for the low-income residents, and follow through in getting these funds into the hands of renters and landlords.”

jacob.dick@whlhjz.com

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