Hidalgo Co. rent and mortgage assistance still available

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County has helped over 2,200 families affected by COVID-19 pay their rent or mortgage under three different assistance programs, and one of them is about to end next month.

Earlier this year, county commissioners set aside $7 million to start the Hidalgo County Mortgage and Rent Relief Program. Its aim was to help families living in rural Hidalgo County and the small communities of Granjeno and Sullivan City keep their homes despite being adversely affected by the pandemic, economically or healthwise.

The money commissioners used to fund the program came from the $151 million the county received in CARES Act funding at the start of the pandemic. That money, however, must be spent by Dec. 31, according to federal guidelines.

Last month, The Monitor reported the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency (CSA), which administers the program, was having a tough time finding eligible applicants because of the criteria in place. Out of the $7 million available, only about $400,000, or about 5% of the total funds, had been spent during the program’s first three months.

Circumstances have since changed, and those figures have more than doubled.

“I’ve been a little surprised at the number of viable applications that we’re getting from the rural areas,” CSA Executive Director Jaime Longoria said Friday.

The program is now closer to the $1 million expenditure mark, and it has helped 538 households pay their mortgages and another 180 pay their rent. Eligible families can qualify for up to two months of assistance, and the county pays the money directly to either the landlords or the mortgage companies.

In order to qualify, residents must live in rural Hidalgo County or the communities of Granjeno and Sullivan City, they must show proof they were affected by the disease in one form or another, and they must live below the 300% federal poverty line. A family of four, for example, must have an annual combined income of $78,600 or less to qualify for assistance.

“Those are fairly liberal guidelines in terms of being able to assist families,” Longoria said.

He believes the uptick in the number of applicants is being driven by at least two factors: more awareness about the program and the fact that the deals that residents have made with their landlords or mortgage companies are coming to an end.

“Families are telling us they tried to work with the mortgage companies, and the mortgage companies, up until recently, had been working with them to defer some of those payments or to actually move those payments that were due to the end of their (mortgage) term,” Longoria said.

Others have used up the only resources they had available to them.

“I heard from families that have exhausted their savings, the little savings that they had,” Longoria added. “They’ve tried to muddle through and try to make ends meet using their savings.”

The consequences of the economic downturn are becoming more evident each day in a region with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

“We’re starting to see an uptick in the number of evictions and the number of cases where people are possibly in the throes of losing their homes. So we’re doing our best to intervene,” Longoria said. “We’re working with our partners, specifically Texas Rio(Grande) Legal Aid; we’ve contacted the justices of the peace; we contacted land owners and developers to let them know that the services are available; we’ve purchased 200 signs in English and Spanish and posted them in the rural areas of the county; and we’ve done all we can in terms of going to the media, Spanish and English media, and letting the folks know about our program.”

And though this particular program only helps those living outside municipalities, there are other programs in place that can help people living within city limits.

“I have two other funds… One of those is a regular community services block grant allocation and the other is a CARES Act grant that came to us directly,” Longoria said. “Those funds go all the way through the end of June of next year. The funds are still available, and those are countywide funds that we’re utilizing.”

More than 1,000 families have been helped through those two other programs.

“Altogether, we’ve helped a little over 2200 households with rent and mortgage (under) the three programs,” the executive director said.

Aside from rent and mortgage assistance, CSA offers a variety of other services to families that were affected by COVID.

“We can help with food, we can help with rent, we can help with mortgage, we can help with utilities,” Longoria said. “Even families that are struggling with someone who may have COVID and needs a place to stay, we can do emergency shelter for them. There’s just a variety of offerings that we have within our office to be able to assist.”

For more information, go to hidalgocares.org or call CSA staff at (956) 205-7058.