AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin has $25 million to give out to people financially impacted by COVID-19 to help pay rent.

In a press conference Monday, officials with the city’s Housing and Planning Department and Housing Authority said their Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants said federal money is now available, and people have until the end of the year to apply for help.

The application portal opened Monday.

“Too many families in Austin are struggling to pay their rent because of a job loss, loss of work hours, or another impact from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Housing Authority CEO Michael Gerber said. “HACA is again proud to partner with the City’s Housing and Planning Department to provide critical help that will keep some of our community’s most vulnerable residents safe and in their homes.”

Several changes to the program were made in order to help both tenants and landlords. Both tenants and landlords can apply, households can now potentially qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance and funds can cover fees not directly related to paying rent like internet services, garage use, storage, service animals, pets and utilities.

City housing officials also say they are no longer seeking all documentation at the time renters subit their applications. Tenant advocates say previous application requirements were less flexible, with renters often struggling to get employment documents or even a copy of their lease.

“A lot of what we saw with people we were helping was, they would reach a point where they were so frustrated, they were like, I give up, I can’t figure this out,” said Gabby Garcia, who works for Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), a nonprofit that helps renters.

Garcia added the navigating red tape and obtaining the correct documents is even more burdensome for families.

“It’s definitely a lot more complicated in those situations, where it’s multiple families or several people in the house working,” she said.

According to its online dashboard, the city of Austin has distributed more than $15 million in rental assistance. However, the largest recipient group has been single-member households.

Austin housing officials said applicants will be asked to provide all their documentation once they’ve been chosen to receive rent help.

“That’s why we streamlined the application and think that will make it easier for families with children,” said Pilar Sanchez, Vice President of Austin Pathways, a program within the city’s Housing Authority.

Through a collaboration with Austin Energy, the RENT program will also provide application information to the city’s electric company for potential assistance so tenants don’t have to file more paperwork.

To qualify for the RENT program, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • Have an income of no more than 80% of the area median income
  • One or more people in the household must have either qualified for unemployment benefits or give proof COVID-19 reduced income, created more costs of bills or other financial hardship
  • One or more people in the household have to prove they could potentially become homeless or have a housing arrangement that’s “uncertain.” Proof may include a past due utility/rent notice, eviction notice or showing they’re living in unsafe or unhealthy conditions
  • Live within the City of Austin

Changes at the federal level reduce the landlord’s response time and allow more flexibility with documentation. Households receiving other federal subsidies are also eligible.

The city says applications are placed into four priority groups. The highest priority group is considered first but those applications are still pulled at random for review. The priority groups are:

  • Priority 1: Renters who qualify for unemployment at least 90 consecutive days and have less than 30% of the area median income.
  • Priority 2: The same as No. 1 but those who have 30-50% of the area median income
  • Priority 3: Renters that meet one of the following:
    • Qualify for unemployment and make 50% of the area median income
    • Have been homeless during the past three years
    • Applied for RENT assistance between August-December 2020 and didn’t receive help
  • Priority 4: All other applications

The city’s eviction moratorium is in place until May 17. For more information, visit the city’s website or call 512-488-1397 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday.