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Austin Created A Program To Pay Struggling Tenants’ Rent. Some Say It Added To Stress.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Petra Antonio and her husband, Domingo Quiroz, got COVID-19 in September. Antonio said she felt OK, but Quiroz had a fever and a cough that kept him awake at night. He wanted to avoid going to the hospital, because he believed from news reports that if you’re sick enough with the coronavirus to need hospitalization, chances are you won’t survive it.

“He was afraid to go [to the hospital] because they say that you don’t leave,” Antonio said in Spanish.

To quarantine from his wife and four kids, Quiroz spent a week in a hotel run by the city. He eventually felt better, but missed nearly a month of work. The family already had been struggling to pay the $930 a month in rent for their two-bedroom apartment in North Austin, especially after Antonio's hours cleaning office buildings got cut.

The same month they got sick they applied to the City of Austin’s rent assistance program. To qualify, residents must prove the coronavirus has affected their income. Antonio attached copies of the family’s positive COVID-19 tests and a letter explaining the wages they’d lost.

But program administrators determined the couple didn't have enough evidence to show they'd been affected financially by the virus. They didn't deny them assistance, but asked for more documentation. (The Housing Authority of Austin confirmed by email that a positive COVID test is not sufficient evidence of a financial impact.)

“It wasn’t very clear to me what they actually wanted,” Antonio said.

Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants, or RENT 2.0, is the second iteration of a program that pays the rent for people who’ve been financially affected by the pandemic. The City of Austin and HACA have expended more than three-fourths of the roughly $12.9 million allocated for rent help.

It’s funded almost entirely by federal dollars, which means it comes with a deadline.After struggling at first to dole out the money, now it’s almost gone; the city has put out a last call for applications, and renters have until before noon on Tuesday to apply.

But some tenants and the nonprofits helping them apply have said the documentation they’ve had to provide is especially burdensome. Some have complained of having to wait more than a month to receive any communication about their status. Others awarded relief say it took more than a month to get their rent paid.

All this has left tenants behind on rent unable to know for certain if they can depend on the city’s help and whether to plan for a potential eviction.

“The reality of the lives of folks who are the most vulnerable in our community is that lives are messy,” Shoshana Krieger, project director at Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), told KUT. “That means that programs which are supposed to be targeting folks who are vulnerable need to address the fact that people's lives are messy.”

As of last week, HACA said it had received 8,221 applications. Program administrators say those who’ve had problems applying or getting their rent paid quickly represent a handful of the roughly 3,200 households who’ve been helped.

“I think ... if you compare [the city's program] to other cities around the country and the programs that have been stood up, I think we’ll withstand a lot of scrutiny,” Mike Gerber, CEO of HACA, said. “I think we should feel really proud of it.”

In October, Krieger sent a letter to the city outlining some of the problems BASTA had seen with the program. Of the nearly two dozen renters it had tried to help apply, the nonprofit wrote, none had been able to receive assistance. They'd run into several barriers the letter said: challenges completing an online-only application, too many required documents and a helpline they said was, well, not helpful.

For example, Krieger told KUT, the program requires a copy of a renter’s signed lease, something many do not have or have trouble getting from their landlord.

“For what should be sometimes the simplest documentation requirement, which is showing that you're a renter, a lot of the renters who we work with may not have a full copy of their lease and a full copy of the lease is required to be eligible,” she said.

The city designed the program to reach the lowest income people in Austin, and data indicates that the program is achieving that. According to an online dashboard run by the city, more than half of those who’ve had their rent paid through RENT 2.0 are considered very low-income, making 30% or less than the median family income.

But because of precisely this, advocates say, the city and HACA need to make the process easier.

With any program funded by taxpayer money, Gerber said, the city needs to protect against fraud and make sure renters are who they say they are. Additionally, he said, because the program is primarily funded with CARES Act money, HACA and the city need to be wary of federal audits.

“We can't have a program that doesn't have any requirements to it, but we can try our best,” he said. “And we have worked hard to try to minimize and reduce documentation.”

Gerber said the process would be much easier if there weren’t a pandemic that prohibits people from meeting face-to-face. He imagines the city and HACA could have set up a place for people to apply and have their questions answered in person.

Instead, he said, they’ve tried to minimize requirements, like allowing renters to self-certify in the place of official documents. They can sign a letter, for example, stating how much income they’ve lost.

But people helping tenants apply told KUT the process can still be difficult. For example, oftentimes tenants will have submitted a document but then receive an automated message saying an application is missing that same document. In one case, there was no phone number attached to the automated email.

That’s been the experience of Hannah Bronsnick, a parent support specialist with the Austin Independent School District how helps families apply for rent assistance. While the RENT 2.0 program does not require Social Security numbers, Bronsnick said at least one family she helped received an automated message asking for it. She said they called her confused and stressed.

“I have families calling me that are in crisis,” Bronsnick said. “One of the main stressors is, how am I going to pay my rent? I feel like this program was designed to alleviate that stress, but in most cases that I've seen, it's either not doing that at all or doing that but over a prolonged period of time.”

Of the five families she’s helped apply, Bronsnick said, only one has successfully received rent help.

Then there’s the length of time it takes for rent payments to be received. Renters who apply must be initially approved and then they enter a lottery. If chosen, their application undergoes much more scrutiny, with program administrators reaching out for additional documents or clarification.

HACA said if someone is chosen by the lottery, their landlord can get paid within a week. (As part of the program, landlords instead of tenants are paid directly.) The City of Austin said the length of time is closer to two weeks. But that has not been every renter’s experience.

Take Laney Fisher. When Fisher’s ex-husband lost his job as a restaurant manager in March, she suddenly became the sole provider for their 10-year-old son.

“All of the financial obligations in our household that [my ex-husband] would have with me – such as child care or extra tutoring or my son's counseling or even a car payment that he financed before we got divorced – all of those things have fallen to me,” she said.

While Fisher has kept her administrative job, without child support she’s watched her monthly income drop as her expenses have gone up. A week before Thanksgiving, she realized she wasn’t going to be able to pay December rent and applied for the city’s assistance program. She was selected by the lottery system.

“There’s relief coming,” she thought to herself. So, she moved money she’d been putting aside for rent toward the tutor and counselor for her son, who has a learning disability.

But then Dec. 1 came and went, and her landlord had not been paid. Fisher said she called the RENT 2.0 hotline and was told she wouldn’t be receiving the one month of rent she’d been approved for until mid-January. Meanwhile, her landlord could begin charging her late fees for the unpaid December rent: $100 for the first day, $25 per day for each day after that.

“It is more stressful because I’m like, ‘OK, I thought I had this worked out’,” Fisher said. She said she asked the woman who answered the hotline what would happen if she found a way to pay December rent to avoid accruing late fees. She was told the city could not reimburse her for the money since the rule is that landlords are paid directly.

Bronsnick worked with one woman who was approved in November, but her landlord didn’t receive rent from the city by December. To avoid late fees, the woman borrowed money from a friend; the city can't reimburse her friend and her landlord's been paid, so now she’s not sure she can receive the money she was approved for.

“When you take a long time to get people assistance, they’re resourceful and resilient and they will find a way to do it themselves,” Bronsnick said.

Fisher said she feels like the program hurt her more than it helped.

“I’m in a worse situation now than I was before, because I trusted the program the City of Austin created,” she said.

According to the City of Austin, Antonio's landlord will receive six months of rent for her family. But as of Sunday, Antonio said she had not been told this.

“I don’t know anything. They haven’t let me know,” she wrote in Spanish via text message. According to HACA, her family was chosen by the lottery on Oct. 23, but it took more than a month to OK her rent payments, because they had trouble getting additional documents from her and her landlord.

HACA said tenants receive communication about their application at each point in the process.

“We are communicating at every step of the way, [though] there might be lags of time between steps,” said Pilar Sanchez, vice president of Austin Pathways, a program within HACA.

But people working with tenants say communication can often be unclear and requires renters to be proactive. They say this makes it difficult for families strapped for cash to decide which bills they should be prioritizing each month.

“It keeps you in a constant state of anxiety, and it removes your agency to potentially improve your situation,” Brittany Baize, director of development and communications at Family Eldercare, said. Family Eldercare has helped clients apply for the program and has contracted with the city to market it.

But Baize said she’s witnessed many of the same problems as other nonprofits: burdensome documentation requirements, a lengthy process to get paid and a lack of communication that can create a lot of stress.

“If you think you've been approved, then you may think that, ‘OK, I can remain in this situation.’ But if you're racking up late fees ... and you don't know if your landlord is going to negotiate with you or forgive them, but you do know that your rental assistance payments are not going to cover it, then you know, you're left with more unknowns for how are you going to come up with that money.”

Gerber said the City of Austin and HACA put together its first-ever emergency rent assistance program very quickly and are proud of how it’s working. Before the pandemic, the city had been planning a similar rent program, and this one could serve as a model.

“This is the best of the worst kind of program,” Gerber said. “It's a program that can help people stay in their homes and do really great and to stay sheltered and to stay safe. … The worst is that you lose out on the ability to work with folks and to see their individual circumstance and needs and to more fully understand what are the barriers and burdens that they're facing.”

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.