HOUSTON — The Houston City Council on Wednesday approved a relief fund that will provide thousands of residents who are struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic with a one-time $1,200 payment that can be used for rent, food or other needs.
The program, which will be covered by nearly $30 million in federal funding from the CARES Act, is expected to help up to 23,000 households by the end of the month.
“The need is great. It’s out there. It’s widespread,” council member Greg Travis said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Houston joins other cities in Texas and across the country that have given their residents money — similar to stimulus checks the federal government issued earlier this year — to help them through economic hardships they’ve suffered during the pandemic. On Tuesday, officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico, announced residents could apply for $2,000 grants for families dealing with financial hardships.
Many Houston residents have been struggling with food insecurity, lost jobs and worries about being evicted during the pandemic.
Days before Thanksgiving, Houston held a mass food giveaway in which vehicles lined up for hours before the event started.
Since March 1, more than 18,000 eviction cases have been filed in Harris County, where Houston is located, according to January Advisors, a local data science consulting firm tracking the caseload.
The Houston area has only recovered about 50% of the jobs that were lost at the start of the pandemic, according to the Greater Houston Partnership, a local business group. The city was also hit hard by this year’s oil downturn.
A statewide survey released in October by Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 50% of Texans say the pandemic has caused financial hardship for them and their household, and one in ten Texans say they have received food from a nonprofit organization or food bank since the pandemic began.
Growing financial hardship related to the pandemic comes as the rising number of coronavirus patients is pushing Texas hospitals to their limits. For a second consecutive day, Texas surpassed 9,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on Wednesday. Texas hasn’t reported that many coronavirus hospitalizations since a deadly summer outbreak. State health officials reported 14,758 new cases on Wednesday. Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas was expected to receive an initial allotment of over 1.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in December.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that to qualify for the $1,200 city payment, residents must have been affected adversely by the pandemic and have an income that is less than 80% of the area’s median income, which is $63,050 for a family of four or $44,150 for a single individual.
“There are no stipulations on how they can use the money, and right now, ahead of the holidays while so many people are hurting, that flexibility is significant,” Turner said.
The program will be run by BakerRipley, a local charity that ran a rent relief program approved by the city earlier this year.
“We know there is no silver bullet to meet everyone’s needs, but we are hoping these dollars will bring many families closer to financial stability,” said Claudia Aguirre, BakerRipley’s president and CEO.
The Houston City Council on Wednesday also approved $10 million in additional funding for a program to help small businesses with payroll and other expenses. The program is now set to distribute to small businesses $35 million in CARES Act funding.