In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Terrance Jones, interim neighborhood services manager with the city of Fort Worth, spoke with government reporter Rachel Behrndt about how far the city has come to address issues of equity, and how far it has to go.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behnrdt: I’ll start off with, is there a top-line dollar amount that the city received for this rental assistance program?
Terrance Jones: Sure. It was approximately $56 million. We got two different allocations, the first one was about $27 million, and the second one was about $29 million. Then our good friends at the county also agreed to give us an additional $10 million to help with our rental assistance program just because our program was so successful, and we had way more applications than we had funding.
Behrndt: The city has disbursed nearly $31 million in rental assistance so far. That exceeded the city’s expectations. What were the city’s expectations of the need that they were looking to meet? And how did your team work to distribute those funds in a way that again, exceeded the city’s expectations?
Jones: Overall, my expectation has always been to make sure that we help as many people as possible, as fast as we can. Those expectations that we’re referring to are basically the deadlines that were set by the Treasury Department. For our first allocation, we had until September of 2022, to spend those funds. And then for our second amount, we have until September 2025. So as you can see, we exceeded the expectation, and we’re pretty much out of funding at this point, we’re just processing the applications that we have. And once all of those applications are processed, we’ll be at zero.
We want to be able to assess people as fast as possible. And I think our program got a lot of traction when we started marketing. And explain to residents the difference between other programs such as Texas Rent Relief. Most people thought that you had to go through the state, and that there were no funds locally, which there are. So you know that I think that the big key to success for our program is actually marketing and getting the word out and educating people on what’s available.
Behrndt: Last summer, the program was struggling a bit to help people understand where they need to go to apply and the application process was a little complicated. What do you think the city did to market the program better, or make the application easier, that made a big difference and got those applications up.
Jones: We went to a way better platform for application intake, and I’m pretty confident in saying this is that we set the bar when it came to implementing that software. I think that having better software that is user-friendly for clients was great. We also had boots on the ground, meaning that we have people out in the community, helping people apply, making people aware of our program and informing them that this program was local. We worked with apartment managers and actually went out to their locations and did application intake on the spot and approved people on the spot. I think that helped.
Overall, when this program came to us my goal was to make sure that we get into the community and not just sit behind the desk and say, ‘Hey, come to us.’ You know, we need to make sure that people understand what the program is.
Some people don’t have access to the internet, for example, and we want to make sure that we can provide assistance to them by being on site to help them through the application process. Our partners: Fort Worth Housing Solutions, Housing Channel, Samaritan House and Salvation Army helped in getting the word out. Our program started off slow, we identified the problem, and we attacked the problem to make sure that we could solve the issue.
Behrndt: I know that wait time was another concern, back in the summer, it was around a three-week wait time to get an application processed. Has that stayed consistent throughout the program’s life?
Jones: No, it has not stayed consistent. The more applications that we got, the longer the wait time became, and that was just based on demand. We can only hire so many people. To solve that problem, we hired our own internal staff, instead of just having our partners process applications. We hired a team of 10 that assisted with application processing, answering phones, and problem-solving. So I feel like that helped knock down some of that wait time. And we did see an influx and applications being processed, but at the same time, there was also an increase in applications coming in. So, we’re outnumbered in a sense, and we can only do so much at a time.
Behrndt: Did you look to other cities at all to figure out the best way to implement strategies? Did other cities and counties guide your decision-making at all?
Jones: Absolutely, I would definitely say it was a team effort. We reached out to other cities that were successful. We also reached out to other cities that were in the same boat as us. Two of the biggest cities that we reached out to were San Antonio and Houston, or Harris County – their programs were very successful, but they were very successful because they had already implemented similar programs in the past.
Listening to them getting ideas and feedback from them, like, ‘Hey, we want to be out in the community, what do you think about this idea?’ San Antonio, and Houston both told us that that’s something that they implemented, and it went great. So we were able to take that and run with it and have the same success story.
I definitely think that it has benefited the state of Texas as a whole, with cities being able to get together on a conference call and talk like we do. We also work together to make sure that there’s no duplication. So that has been very beneficial to us to make sure that we’re all on the same page and when we’re going in the right direction.
Behrndt: You’ve mentioned partnership a couple of times with Tarrant County, but also the nonprofit partners. One of those partners, Tarrant County, has struggled to disperse all its funds. Where do you think those partnerships were really successful other than what we’ve already touched on?
Jones: I wouldn’t say the county struggled, I think the county had that same issue that we had with the confusion of programs. One thing that we did is make sure we partner with them to get the word out and get a clear message. We’ve also partnered with them and are going to the courts. So when we have clients in court, we can determine if they are a county person? Or is this a city person? So I think that’s where their biggest burden and barrier was that the program was just unclear to the customer. But once we clarified that, the success came. I don’t have a doubt that they’ll spend their money.
So partnerships are great. And I think they’re very important. We’re always striving toward the same goal. And I think that as long as we are all on the same page, we’re unstoppable. I’m happy to see that we’ve all been able to get our money spent, and at the same time be able to partner. They saw that Fort Worth’s program was doing good and needed more money and they gave it to us. And we are grateful for that.
Behrndt When you look across the city, disbursement is pretty consistent, except for in districts 2, 9 and 7. I’m wondering, has the city reflected on that at all? Why might that be the case that those numbers were just a little bit lower?
Jones: We marketed it in all areas evenly. So, you know, we haven’t really looked into it, you know why those numbers may be lower. Maybe in those areas, there’s not as much assistance needed. I know that, in one of those districts, there are not as many apartment complexes as there may be in other districts.
The marketing was definitely even if we’ve pretty much set up shop in each district at some point. So, you know, it’s kind of just how the cookie crumbles. It just depends on who needs the assistance, who’s willing to apply, and who’s willing to be patient through the process.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.