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In the 17 years Irma Corado has run her international package delivery service, she had never asked any government agency for help. When her youngest son told her about a small-business county loan to help those affected by the coronavirus, she reluctantly agreed to apply.
“I was leery,” she said in Spanish, but decided to leave it “in God’s hands.” She hadn’t worked in more than two months, and her business rent and utilities were due.
The Harris County resident had reason to be doubtful. Corado said she struggled with and did not complete an online application for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. She got to the point where the system asked about payroll, she said, and because she uses the money-transfer tool Zelle to pay her salary, she didn’t think she qualified.
The PPP has approved nearly 4.5 million loans worth about $500 billion, but it continues to leave out many business owners who don’t have an accountant on speed dial, are not computer savvy, lack the language skills to navigate the banking system or opt not to try. That has particularly affected very small businesses and those owned by people of color.
The SBA acknowledged that established businesses “knew how to work the system” to get the loans, but mom-and-pop merchants were always at a disadvantage because they lacked the resources to quickly tap into that capital.
“We are the advocate for the underdog, the smaller business that doesn’t know that these resources are available, we are doing the best we can, we only have 14 on our staff,” said Charles Abell, a spokesman for the SBA’s Houston district office, which oversees 32 counties in Southeast Texas with 600,000 small businesses.
That’s one employee for 42,000 small businesses.
In an unprecedented move, local governments across Texas have rushed to fill the void.
They have poured millions of taxpayer funds into a patchwork of loan and grant programs to help small merchants that are a major driver of the local economy and tax base. Unlike the federal program, these local efforts have far fewer hoops to jump through. Applicants don’t have to show proof of payroll, as there are no restrictions on how the money can be spent as long as it’s tied to the business. All they need is to be in good standing with their property taxes and located in that jurisdiction.
The demand for the loans has been overwhelming. In just 28 hours, Harris County, the third-largest in the country and home to Houston, received more than 7,000 applications requesting $150 million in April. Only $10 million was available, taken from the county’s rainy day fund.
Meanwhile, the string-laden federal PPP program still has an untapped $120 billion.