While the last two months have been among the most challenging in history, for local governments, this has been a time of great innovation. Cities have instituted thousands of new programs to help their residents through the COVID-19 crisis, pretty much on the fly.
Housing has been a major area of focus. With more than 36 million people losing their jobs since March, cities are stepping in to make sure that today’s economic crash doesn’t turn into tomorrow’s explosion of homelessness.
Cities like Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and Seattle have set up relief funds to help low-income residents pay rent or utilities. Jersey City, N.J., Santa Ana, Calif., and Washington, D.C., among other cities, have passed rent freezes. Cambridge, Mass., New Orleans, and Oakland, Calif., are among cities supplementing state or federal bans on evictions with moratoriums of their own. And cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh have stepped up education and outreach with landlords and tenants about their rights and responsibilities.
One city that has built a particularly muscular yet nimble response is San Antonio, Texas. There, city leaders took an existing housing-assistance program and scaled it up at a staggering pace. Before COVID-19, this program got about 50 applications per week. In the first week after relaunching the program in late April, the city received 5,300 applications — a 10,000-percent increase.
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The core of the $25-million COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance program is cash assistance for residents with low incomes who are experiencing job- or health-related hardships. The program will pay up to $3,500 to cover rent or mortgage payments and $1,500 to cover utilities. Additional cash grants of up to $300 are available to cover groceries, gasoline, internet access for homeschooling, or other basic needs. The program is scheduled to end July 31, at which time the city will reassess its options.
“Everything has to be on the table when it comes to a crisis,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said as the city council passed the plan on April 23. “What we don’t want to do, knowing full well we can do something to stop it, is allow for families, the most disadvantaged in our communities, to be left behind in this crisis.”
San Antonio’s program represents not one municipal innovation but several of them stacked one atop another, tackling everything from the challenges of processing immense numbers of applications to concerns about how to reach undocumented immigrants. To learn more about it, we spoke with two leaders behind the effort — Assistant City Manager Lori Houston and Housing Services Director Verónica Soto. Here are just some of the innovations baked into their approach.
1. Staffing up flexibly. Before COVID-19, Soto had eight employees to process applications for the existing housing assistance program. To handle a surge in applications, she now has more than 40. Some of the new hands came from within Soto’s department, but most — such as a raft of librarians — were repurposed from other departments where frontline services were closed.
2. Moving a paper process online. Previously, applying for housing assistance was a paper-based process. Keeping it that way was impossible, both because of the incredible volume of applications and because social distancing made in-person interactions complicated. In two weeks, San Antonio did something that, in normal times, almost certainly would have taken months: Moved everything online. “That’s unheard of in government, to move that quickly,” Soto said. “It isn’t a perfect system, but we had to move quickly because the need is so great.” She knew that the digital divide would be a major problem in the move online. But that only fueled another innovation.
3. Leveraging partnerships. To get the word out about the program and get residents enrolled, San Antonio partnered with a host of nonprofits and grassroots organizations, including some with deep connections to immigrant communities. These groups are running neighborhood intake centers where people who don’t have internet access or need help with the online form can go. “We’ve set up seven intake centers in churches that are in the community and in areas that have a high rate of digital divide,” Houston said, “so we can really work with those areas that need more help with filling out the application.”
4. Listening to what residents say they need. The $300 cash grants San Antonio is offering for basic needs is unique because of the flexible ways residents can spend it. The premise is that people in crisis know best what their most immediate needs are — whether it’s groceries, medicines, or a car repair. The idea for the approach came from a stakeholder group of individuals who have lived experience with homelessness or eviction. “Cash is freedom, and they can use it to buy what they need the most,” Houston said. “The last thing they want to do is go to another program and wait in line.”
5. Looking out for other needs. The application for housing assistance includes questions about whether individuals are experiencing domestic violence — if the answer is yes, they get an immediate call from the city’s family violence prevention services. Similar connections with a local food bank are made for applicants who are experiencing hunger. “This isn’t just about making your rent payment, it’s about making sure you are secure,” Houston said. “We’ve approached this comprehensively.”
6. Pooling funds from various sources. To pay for this emergency program, San Antonio cobbled together city funds from a variety of sources, along with existing federal funds and new dollars from the federal CARES Act. Additional funds provided by a local foundation made it possible to serve undocumented residents. A big ally is the San Antonio Apartment Association, representing the city’s landlords. They’re pushing members to reduce rent for tenants in need in order to make the relief dollars stretch farther.
According to Houston, what made it all work was that San Antonio already had strong partnerships and political will when it comes to housing. “We were able to respond quickly,” she said, “because our community has made affordable housing a priority and we had programs that were already in existence.”