By Christine Mai-Duc and Dan Frosch
Overwhelmed state and local authorities are grappling with how
to allocate $25 billion in federal rental relief, leaving many
tenants and landlords waiting weeks or months for their share.
Before the pandemic, Orange County, Calif., spent less than $1
million a year on rental assistance for tenants at risk of
eviction. Now, it has to distribute more than $60 million in
federal aid to thousands of residents behind on rent because of
State and local governments around the U.S. are scrambling to
launch programs to handle the nation's largest-ever emergency
rental-assistance effort, intended to help an estimated 13 million
people. Their challenges are similar to those faced in
administering Covid-19 testing and vaccine rollouts with resources
provided by the federal government.
Jason Austin, who is overseeing Orange County's program, said he
recently found himself going back to the three nonprofits he was
already working with on rental assistance and asking, "Hey, how do
you feel about $20 million each instead of $200,000?"
Orange County opened applications to tenants Feb. 1 and cut the
first checks to landlords the week of March 15. It received more
than 10,000 applications, most of which are still being
The federal dollars were allocated in December to states, as
well as cities and counties of more than 200,000 people, to cover
up to 12 months of a back rent and three months of future rent for
people who can show they fell behind for pandemic-related reasons.
Both tenants and landlords can apply for the money, but it is
typically distributed directly to property owners to help them
quickly handle mortgage payments and other expenses.
Applications can take weeks to process because jurisdictions
must painstakingly review information such as landlord and tenant
identities to avoid fraud.
An additional $20 billion allocated by Congress in March is
expected to be sent to jurisdictions in the coming months.
Separately, the Biden administration last month extended through
June a federal moratorium on evicting individuals making up to
$99,000 and couples making up to $198,000 annually who say they
can't pay because of coronavirus-related hardships. But without
cash assistance before then, back rent will continue to accumulate
for tenants who can't afford to pay, leaving them vulnerable to
North Carolina's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, created in
2018 to help residents with hurricane-damaged homes, has been
transformed to provide Covid-19 rental relief. Typically staffed by
60 people, it has hired more than 200 temporary employees to help
distribute its $546 million share of the funds that Congress
allocated in December.
"To have to stand up a new program within a few days or weeks,
knowing that people were at risk of homelessness or eviction, or
spreading the pandemic because they're moving as a family...This is
on a scale that no one's seen," said Laura Hogshead, the agency's
chief operating officer.
In Colorado, the housing division within the state's Department
of Local Affairs recently started disbursing its $254 million
share. More than 40,000 applications for rental assistance have
come in since the beginning of the pandemic, and the state has a
backlog of about 7,200 it hasn't started to review.
"We were so overwhelmed. We're a small agency to begin with,"
spokesman Brett McPherson said.
Matthew Samaha, 32 years old, said he applied for rental
assistance from the state-run program last month but has yet to
hear back. He fell behind on his $925 monthly rent early in the
pandemic when his overtime hours at a manufacturing plant outside
of Denver were eliminated. With his income reduced, he said he
can't pay the nearly $4,000 he owes in back rent while also
covering his car payment and living expenses.
So far his property manager and landlord have been
understanding, but he worries their patience will run out.
"I'm kind of wearing myself down hoping something gives, and it
isn't my landlord that gives first," he said.
Mr. McPherson said it is taking three to eight weeks to process
applications, a pace the state is trying to speed up. "We're not
getting applications funded anywhere near as quickly as we'd like
to," he said.
Other jurisdictions have barely gotten their programs started.
The city of Los Angeles opened applications on March 30.
South Los Angeles residents Tammie Mason and her mother, Faye
Dedmon, who own a rental home that has been in their family for
more than 50 years, applied right away for relief to cover the
nearly $30,000 Ms. Mason said their tenant owes. He hasn't paid
since March of last year, she said, and they haven't been able to
evict him because of the moratorium. She and her mother have burned
through several thousand dollars of reserves and since December
have been pooling their personal savings to pay the mortgage,
utilities and other costs.
They have yet to hear back on their application.
"We're going on more than a year and we have not received any
relief, so unfortunately we have no choice but to sell," Ms. Mason
Write to Christine Mai-Duc at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dan
Frosch at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 13, 2021 10:50 ET (14:50 GMT)
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