When the COVID-19 crisis started in March, San Antonio was perhaps more prepared than any other major U.S. city in helping residents who had lost their job from being evicted. The year before, the local city government had established a program to help people in the crosshairs of gentrification pay their rent or mortgages, a response to rising housing costs associated with rising property values and taxes.
Meanwhile, on a national level, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), a nonprofit that helps people lift themselves out of poverty, was in its nineteenth year as a practitioner and advocate of direct cash transfers.
At the heart of both initiatives was a framework of protocols and, from the technical end of things, online platforms that had been built and already deployed in cities across the country, ready to get aid to the people who needed it most.
It just so happened that a month before COVID-19 began shutting down San Antonio’s economy, the H. E. Butt Foundation was in the process of introducing FII to the City of San Antonio along with some of this city’s largest and most influential foundations. The goal was to establish FII in San Antonio long-term, which meant selecting roughly 1,000 families for FII’s cash investments over two years.
When it became clear that the pandemic would have a crippling effect on San Antonio’s working class, the frameworks the city and FII had already established sprang into action.
The collaboration has resulted in more than $50 million committed to helping nearly 10,000 San Antonians with rent and mortgage assistance, utility bill aid, and cash in hand.
City officials say it’s the most robust partnership of its kind in the country. Other major cities are either starting their programs from scratch or facing already-exhausted emergency relief funding.
Like any large-scale philanthropic effort, the aid has also come with a few hiccups that highlight some of San Antonio’s long standing inequalities.
A system built for cash-in-hand
In addition to receiving help paying rent, households receive up to $500 in cash from a pool of $9 million, or nearly 20% of the overall budget, which has been cobbled together using city funding and local philanthropic dollars.
Cash-in-hand is a concept that has been debated within nonprofit circles. Some local housing advocates say people who are struggling with their finances need the cash so they can make their own decisions on how best to spend it during the pandemic. The city’s system is set up so that the landlords and banks are paid directly. It’s a clash in philosophies city officials are keenly aware of.
“We don’t want to be overly constraining when so many people are in so much need,” said Richard Keith, human services administrator for the City of San Antonio. What the city has built, with guidance from FII, is a system that implements both philosophies at the same time.
Because San Antonio had its program in place already, other cities have asked about it.
“Some cities were thinking about doing what we have done, and they weren’t sure they could do it,” Keith said, acknowledging the conventional nonprofit thinking: “‘You don’t give money directly to people.’”
In comes FII. So far, nearly 10,000 households have benefited from direct cash assistance from two pools of money that comprise the $9 million. In one, the predominant ZIP receiving assistance has been 78207, or the near West Side. In the other, the area receiving the most assistance has been near northwest San Antonio.
In a small survey conducted by FII, the nonprofit found that the majority of recipients used the cash to help pay bills. More than 60% were living paycheck to paycheck or had fallen behind on their financial obligations before the pandemic.