too little, too late. Just as the number of applications for rental assistance reached a feverish pitch this summer, Hidalgo County was forced to surrender nearly $1 million unused before federal deadlines.
Jaime Longoria, director of the Hidalgo County Community Services Authority (HCCSA), said Thursday before an advisory panel that discussed the returned funds in detail. It’s not enough.”
Last January, the county received $26 million from the U.S. Treasury Department as part of the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which began January 5, 2021. ERAP was established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Established in 2021 to help households struggling to pay rent and utilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This program provides up to 15 months of past and future rent for apartments, condos, homes and land. It also supports utilities such as water, electricity, gas, garbage, sewage, and internet services.
To be eligible for the program, applicants must be current Hidalgo County residents, be part of the 80% regional median income, and be financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, there were a few applications.
When the program went into effect in April 2021, the county had only one application in one month.
The number increased to 103 in May, 214 in June and 227 in July. By January of this year, that number peaked at 708 applications and steadily increased over the following months.
As of July 17, the county had 946 applications, up from 1,030 expected the previous month. Longoria estimates that 60% of applications have been accepted into the program.
“Our program is at its peak now,” Longoria says.
Longoria began sounding the alarm last December, when the Treasury Department warned of imminent repayment of funds if companies failed to meet certain deadlines.
“In the process, the Treasury Department set some guidelines, spending benchmarks,” Longoria said. “But the benchmark that the Treasury looked at was actually spending up to March of last year. The Treasury looks at obligations. They want to know what you paid — did you tie them up? So what they did is they went in and got the money back.
It wasn’t just the rental assistance program that failed to provide the allocated funds. The county had money with no other obligations to return.
On January 31, the US Treasury recovered $9,055,067.48 from the county. On March 9th they recovered $1,889,433.19. Friday’s latest installment was $962,220.85 from ERAP for a total of $11,906,721.52.
“There was a good deal of money coming back,” said Longoria. “We were able to move about $15 million of that. Prior to this, we had money transferred from the county. We are still accepting applications and are doing everything we can to help families. but there was a good deal of money returned.
The county argues that it was not a lack of effort that caused some of the funds to go unused.
During the time given to spend the money, they held 28 pop-up events in school districts, Spanish-speaking TV stations, outside apartments and even in churches.
All in all, they managed to provide about $14 million to needy families. 10% was used for administrative purposes.
Longoria’s department worked with local organizations to hold outreach events throughout the county to facilitate rental assistance and assisted in person with the application process, as well as to prevent eviction by reaching out to magistrates, legal aid and others. was involved in
Despite their best efforts, the program faced a number of obstacles that proved difficult to overcome.
These obstacles include socioeconomic factors in low-income areas. This is especially true for residents who may be eligible for the program but lack access to internet services to complete the application. Other factors included lack of transportation to apply in person and lack of computer literacy.
To overcome this challenge, the County adopted Yardi, an online platform that offers services in English and Spanish and handles much of the casework associated with the program.
“We wanted people to feel safe going online,” says Longoria.
They also trained community-based organizations to provide assistance in filling out program applications.
But a major stumbling block was the reluctance of people who might have qualified for the program but didn’t step forward because of their immigration status.
“There’s a real lack of trust,” said Longoria. “There’s this whole idea, ‘If you sign up for services, it’s going to affect us in some way.’ I am going to follow.” I have many questions about the immigration status of these applications. ”
He said his department has taken advantage of “all the flexibility that the Treasury Department offers” to make the program easily accessible to those who qualify.
“We were as flexible as possible,” says Longoria. “I have no doubt — there is no doubt that we did what we could.”
The county made a last-ditch effort to keep the funds.
The Treasury Department sent a letter to the county on June 10 indicating that there is excess funds in the amount of $1,218,640.83 that must be returned. However, the county was able to reduce that amount by $256,419.98, but by Friday, the county had returned $962,220.85, “unobligated funds.”
While some may interpret success as having used nearly 95% of the allocated funds, Longoria focuses on incoming applications and millions of unused.
Longoria said his department is actively looking for additional avenues to provide assistance to county residents.
“One of the things I assure the community is that we are taking care of people who are being displaced, who are being displaced,” Longoria said. We have some other funds that we can throw into the mix to get back some of the , and continue to support our community.We are looking for other grants.We are looking for other funds that can fill those gaps. .”