North Dakota will return nearly $ 150 million in federal rental aid as applications pile up
The state government will return $ 149 million of the $ 352 million it received for rent from the federal government‘s emergency aid program. State administrators say the federal government may have overestimated the state’s ability to spend that money within the program deadlines.
“I think that makes sense to us,” said Jessica Thomasson, executive policy director for family stability and social inclusion for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. “We are a state with a population where it is not realistic to spend those dollars effectively according to the program guidelines in the given timeframe.”
However, housing advocates say more work needs to be done to use the money before it is returned and that disbursements of support payments have been slow after the state switched to a private provider for its online application portal. Some people, lawyers say, were eventually expelled after waiting to hear about their application.
“This is a lot of help that can be given to families who need them,” said Jade Eagle, who handles grant applications at High Plains Fair Housing in Grand Forks. “I think it’s a shame.”
North Dakota received this rental assistance grant from two iterations of the Emergency Rental Assistance program, administered by the Treasury Department, which aims to help states address a national affordable housing crisis allegedly exacerbated by the pandemic.
The first iteration of the program, called ERA 1, raised $ 200 million for the state, and the funds are due to be spent by September 2022. “ERA 2” was created by the American Rescue Plan Act and raised $ 152 million for. a housing allowance and must be issued by September 2024. The funds to be returned to the Ministry of Finance come from ERA 1.
Currently, landlords have been given approximately $ 15 million from tenants who have defaulted on their rental payments through the North Dakota Rent Help program, which pays overdue rents and utilities for tenants who have defaulted and up offering one year of support to households meeting the program income limits.
The program prioritizes people earning less than 50% of the median income of the area and covers people earning up to 80% of the AMI, which for a family of four is approximately $ 80,000 per year, depending on the county in who live in a household. Other program criteria include households that are at risk of eviction and who are homeless. The program cannot be used by homeowners.
For Thomasson, getting this money to landlords and utilities is a matter of size. She said there are approximately 120,000 rental units in the state, thousands of which could meet the eligibility criteria. Raising awareness of the program and spending those funds is a huge task, says Thomasson that the state may not be able to support them due to the federal dollar-to-rental unit ratio.
Nearly 4,000 rented households have received about $ 15 million from the Rent Help program, and the state used about $ 3 million of its CARES bill in 2020 on another rental assistance program called Rent Bridge.
Too strict and too slow?
Michelle Rydz, General Manager of the High Plains Fair Housing Center, will use grant funds for testing, training and operations. Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald
Individuals who meet the eligibility criteria for the state’s Rent Help program must apply online or call the program staff. In July, the state also signed a contract with 17 housing companies and nonprofit groups to help people fill out applications.
For at least ERA 1, applicants must prove that they are affected by the pandemic and otherwise document their needs, including by submitting copies of a rental agreement. ERA 2 has no such obligation to document negative effects of the pandemic. The landlord must also be accountable for how much a tenant has defaulted.
Terry Hanson, executive director of the Grand Forks Housing Authority, said the funds could be distributed more quickly if applicants could self-certify their need for assistance. The housing authority is one of the places that can help fill out the application for assistance.
North Dakota, like other states, allows self-certification, but only if efforts to document a renter’s needs fail. Hanson said he was fine to see pay slips or a lease – the funds don’t go to individuals, but to their landlords, and the state needs to know who is being paid – but, for example, documenting when a person’s hours were lost the application deadline is over.
“I believe that the program as it operates today has unnecessary barriers to its flow,” said Hanson.
Hanson also said it would speed up the process by allowing application counselors to approve requests for assistance on their own. All applications are approved at the state level by around 17 employees. Thomasson said efforts are being made to add more people to approve.
Another problem that preoccupies some application consultants is the slow adoption of payments once a person’s application has been accepted. The Department of Human Services switched to a private provider for its online application portal in mid-October. Some applications were lost in the switchover and the state has approved between 5 and 10% of the applications received since November. Around 1,200 applications are sent to the department every month, a backlog has accumulated.
And the wait has resulted in some evictions.
Michelle Rydz, executive director of Grand Forks-based High Plains Fair Housing, and Eagle, the nonprofit’s application advisor, said they saw some people expelled for non-payment after their applications were submitted.
“A lot of people went out of their way to get all of their records in good faith, their landlords did their part, and while they wait it just took too long,” said Rydz. “The landlords who had to make their living drove the people out.”
Thomasson said staff are trying to get the permits in four weeks but admitted it took longer. She said she is aware that longer waiting times can worry both tenants and their landlords, and staff are working to bridge the gap.
Eagle said she wants landlords to understand that the overdue rent will be paid once an application is accepted, it is only a matter of time. Eagle, who helped prepare more than 50 applications, said some landlords handled waiting times well, but others didn’t. For those who waited, the payout covered any arrears rents, sometimes thousands of dollars.
“It took a while, but they got their money back,” said Eagle.
One thing is clear to Eagle: She does not want the money to be returned to the Treasury Department before the deadline. She said she would like to see the Rent Help program modified to use more money in the state. In addition, she said a return would undermine the efforts of people who are working to get the funds where they are needed, including government employees who have “worked themselves in rags.”
“I believe they should upgrade the skills or support families can get because I know other states have passed that 12-month mark,” Eagle said.
For information on the government’s Rent Help program, visit ndhousingstability.servicenowservices.com/nd_rent_help or call 701-328-1907. The list of application advisors can also be found on the program website.