HARRIS COUNTY, Texas - A $30 million COVID-19 relief fund was approved during Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
The fund will provide grants to families, including undocumented immigrants, to pay for expenses like rent, food, medical care, child care, and other basic needs.
“$30 million is a big sum, but this is a big problem, probably on par with the Great Depression,” said Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1 Commissioner.
The Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund will provide $1,200 to households with four or less residents and $1,500 grants to households with five more people.
It is estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 households will benefit from the fund.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who ultimately voted against the measure, argued for a federally reimbursable rent relief program similar to that put forth by the City of Houston.
“We are going to take property taxpayer’s funds, which are not reimbursable and are not part of the CARES Act, and spend that then I have very, very serious questions,” said Cagle.
Ultimately the Democratic majority opted to deliver relief checks over rent subsidies, allowing recipients to spend as they wish.
“We know that there are hundreds of thousands of folks who have filed for unemployment – around 300,000—in Harris County,” Judge Hidalgo said. “So it’s a chunk, it’s a difference. It will not cover all the need. Of course a county is not positioned to truly cover all of the need, but we’re doing as much as we can with the funds we can afford."
Judge Hidalgo says they are being “incredibly strategic to make sure the dollars go to the families who need it most.”
“These kinds of programs are proven to work if you make it a system that targets the lowest income people and also gives them the flexibility to spend the dollars on whatever they need,” Judge Hidalgo said.
The first $15 million will be dispersed as soon as next week. The Greater Houston Community Foundation, who is managing the fund, is working with non-profit organizations in the community who will identify families to distribute funds to.
“They’ve identified dozens of nonprofits that they’ve worked with already who are deeply embedded in the community. So these nonprofits have been trying to help to help individual families and they know who the families are who can’t afford food, medicine, who don’t even have a car to go to the food bank line and get food put into their trunk," Judge Hidalgo said.
The second $15 million will be dispersed closer to July. A portal will be created where families can apply for the fund. They will then be put into a randomized system for selection. People meet certain criteria such as being lower income or being of high social vulnerability index will be put into the system more times for a higher chance of selection.
A system to apply for the second half of the funds will be established in the coming weeks. Judge Hidalgo says the system will not be first come, first served, and families will be given enough time to apply.