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25/09/2021

Anxious tenants await assistance as evictions resume across the US

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Six months after Congress approved spending tens of billions of dollars to help evicted renters, South Carolina was still looking for tenants. They were all nine of them. It, like most states, had a large sum of money to distribute — $272 million. However, by June, it had distributed just over $36,000. The pace has since quickened, but as of Aug. 20, South Carolina had only distributed $15.5 million in rent and utility jobs, payments, or about 6% of its funds. 

People are strangling on the red tape,” said Sandy Gillis, executive director of the Hilton Head Deep Well Project, which stopped referring tenants to the program and started paying overdue rent through its own private funds instead. 

The struggles in South Carolina are emblematic of a program that was launched at the start of the year with the promise of resolving the pandemic eviction crisis, only to fall victim in many states to bureaucratic roadblocks, political inertia, and ambiguous federal guidance. 

Concerns about the slow pace grew on Thursday when the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a temporary ban imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 3.5 million people in the United States face eviction in the next two months as of Aug. 16. 

The Supreme Court decision undermines historical efforts by Congress and the White House to ensure housing stability during the pandemic,” Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a statement. 

State and local governments are working to improve programs to distribute emergency rental assistance to those in need, but they need more time; the Supreme Court’s decision will lead to many renters, predominantly people of color, losing their homes before the assistance can reach them.” 

According to the Treasury Department, nearly a million households have been served, and 70 locations have received at least half of their money, including several states, including Virginia and Texas. New York has now distributed more than $156 million after not distributing anything until May. 

However, according to the most recent data, 16 states distributed less than 5%, and nine spent less than 3%. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the majority are red states with hard-to-reach rural populations. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Mississippi, and New Mexico are among them. 

According to the group, there are numerous reasons for the slow distribution. Among them is the historic sum of money — more than the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development — which required 450 localities to create programs from scratch. Getting the money out is also made more difficult by the fact that checks are not sent directly to beneficiaries, as is the case with the child tax credit. 

States and municipalities have also struggled with technology and staffing and reaching tenants who do not have internet access or small landlords who are unaware of the assistance available. Some have applications that are so complicated that they deter prospective applicants, while others have income documentation and pandemic impact requirements that can be time-consuming. Efforts to use coronavirus relief money for rental assistance last year faced similar challenges. 

A lot of states are lagging behind,” said Emma Foley, a research analyst with the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The fact that this many states still have distributed so little is worrisome.” 

In April, South Carolina lawmakers were slow to implement the state’s program, delegating distribution to the state housing authority. It took weeks to set up its program, with the first assistance not arriving until June. Housing advocates have also criticized the reams of paperwork required and the months of waiting for tenants to learn whether they qualify. 

Shaquarryah Fraiser applied in May and is still waiting to hear whether she will be able to get help paying back rent for the mobile home she shared with her mother in Sumter, South Carolina, for $550 per month. Fraiser’s mother passed away from COVID-19 last year, and the 29-year-old fell behind after contracting pneumonia and losing her phone survey job. 

It’ll take a lot of stress off of me. I won’t be so anxious about this situation,” said Fraiser of the prospect of getting the help. In Arizona, delays have led to plenty of finger-pointing. 

This month, Arizona’s House Democrats blamed the state for the delays in getting the money out — less than $7 million of the state’s $900 million through July. The Arizona Department of Economic Security claims that federal funds have been allocated to 13 different jurisdictions, not just the state, and blames cities and counties for the slow rollout. “We have offered to assist overwhelmed jurisdictions with their workloads,” the department’s director Michael Wisehart wrote in response to lawmakers. “Regrettably, no jurisdiction has chosen to partner in this way.” 

The Treasury Department has repeatedly tweaked its guidance to encourage states and local governments to streamline funding distribution. The Biden administration has also asked states to develop eviction diversion programs that aim to resolve disputes before they reach the courts. 

Treasury issued additional guidance on Wednesday in an attempt to expedite the process. This includes, among other things, allowing tenants to self-assess their income and risk of becoming homeless. Many states and municipalities, fearful of fraud, have measures in place that can take weeks to verify an applicant’s eligibility for assistance. Treasury also said the money could be distributed in advance of funds being approved as well as to tenants who have outstanding rental debt in collection, making it easier for them to find new housing. 

Source: Lewistown Sentinel 

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