Thousands of Travis County applicants waiting on rental assistance

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With several eviction protections expiring soon, thousands of applicants are still waiting to be approved for help through Travis County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

As of June 17, 15 applications had reached the “final review” stage, and payment is currently pending for seven of those applicants, according to a Travis County spokesperson.

More than 2,500 people applied through a new application portal in mid-April, after the county received $10.7 million dollars in federal funding to be used for rental assistance.

Prior to the launch of this new portal, the county’s Health and Human Services division had already received thousands more online and paper applications for rental and utility assistance through their existing program.

“Our waitlists are very, very long. That is because we are understaffed and we have an ancient data management system,” the county’s Family Support Services division director, Kirsten Siegfried, told County Commissioners in last week’s meeting. “Our contractors are having a hard time getting those checks out the door.”

Siegfried told Commissioners there was about a three month wait-time for utility and rental assistance when the county handled those services “in-house.” Now, the county has contracted with a third-party company to wade through the new restrictions and guidelines attached to the latest round of federal rental assistance funding.

A spokesperson for the county said that the contractor had identified 3,600 applications from the county’s previous program that could be considered for funding through ERAP. However, they explained that process takes time.

Sherri Fleming, the Health and Human Services division director, said they had planned to replace an outdated data system for these types of programs, until COVID-19 started to spread.

“The best laid plans,” Fleming said. “We didn’t realize that right in the middle of our work to replace this system, that’d we’d have to confront a pandemic.”

She said they are working with the contractor to add 14 people to review applications, four people to take calls, and a dozen people to perform outreach to applicants. This “surge staffing” will last for the next 90 days while they process and work to eliminate the “unanticipated backlog” of applications.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he was most concerned about getting funding to families facing eviction.

“We’ve been talking about taking 3,000 homeless people and getting them off the street, but we’ve got more than 1,800 families who are at risk of going onto the street because of evictions,” Travillion said.

In response, Fleming noted, “We have a lot of cash in the community right now, and I think if the circumstance of eviction is solely based on non-payment — there’s a lot of cash available.”

Travis County Justice of the Peace Nick Chu told KXAN he hasn’t seen a massive increase in eviction notices filed yet, but he said the courts were bracing for the possibility of a surge of people needing somewhere to go after more eviction protections expire toward the end of the summer. Chu said that’s why people should get their rental assistance applications in now. He’s also urging people to make sure they communicate with the county to get all the correct documentation in, as well.

“Be proactive in applying for these programs,” he said. “The faster they get that information, the faster they can distribute those funds.”

Travis County commissioners said in a meeting Tuesday they have a new tool to cut down on duplicate applications — those that are inactive and bogging down the process.

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