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Renters struggling with COVID-19 assistance program, advocates say

Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 9:30 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 27, 2021 at 10:25 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama renters in jeopardy of being evicted say they are having a hard time getting assistance through a new federally funded program.

After the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s latest moratorium on evictions in August, Gov. Kay Ivey authorized the Alabama Housing Finance Authority to implement the state’s new COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance program.

The ERA program is funded entirely by a $263 million congressional grant under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. It can help renters with past due, current and up to three months of expected rent, utility and home energy expenses.

Thousands are submitting applications for assistance, but advocates say there are not enough people running the program to help them all.

“We’re just not seeing the amount of rental assistance go out the door in a timely manner to people who are qualified to receive it,” said Dev Wakeley, policy analyst for Alabama Arise.

Alabama Arise is a a nonprofit helping those marginalized by poverty. Wakeley said a third party company called Horne LLP is helping the Alabama Housing Finance Authority distribute funds, but operations are still slow.

“While Horne says they’ve got basically 80 people working on this, the throughput just hasn’t been there,” Wakeley said. “People are calling in while they’re under the threat of eviction and they just don’t have anybody to talk to.”

Wakeley said the administrative difficulty in standing the program up shouldn’t have an impact on those needing assistance. He describes the current situation as a “carelessness toward human life and well-being.”

“People are being evicted who are qualified for help just because they haven’t been able to get it yet, and we’re doing that leading into these winter months during a pandemic,” Wakeley said. “Reliance on programs that aren’t really structured through agencies that have done this before could very well cost a lot of lives.”

To date, the Emergency Rental Assistance program has received over 70,000 online entries since its inception in March 2021.

To date, 5,514 households have been approved for payment. The assistance provided totals $34.2 million.

A spokesperson from the Alabama Housing Finance Authority released the following statement on the matter:

“We have been working diligently to get assistance to Alabama families in need. We were one of the first in the nation to set up a program from scratch and have accomplished much in a short amount of time. Because we were the first to launch, we also covered applications from several of the local jurisdictions until their separate programs launched much later.

“We have received over 70,000 online entries. Most of those could not qualify for a variety of reasons, including that people would enter the system and learn that they did not meet the program requirements. But we are required to review the entries anyway and follow-up with requests for additional information, requiring considerable time.

“Nevertheless, the number of applications approved and the money distributed generally increases over the previous month. Now that Treasury has relaxed the documentation requirements, we’ve been able to remove cumbersome congestion points to increase the processing rate.

“There are nearly 90 people delegated to ERA Alabama. That includes the call center which receives around 1,100 calls a day. Our call system prompts customers every 3 minutes to press 2 to opt for a customer service representative to return their call. If a caller does not choose that option, the system should disconnect after 30 minutes. However, disconnections rarely happen as the average wait time to be connected to a representative is around 10 minutes. The hours of our highest call volume are between 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Of course, the system can experience errors, but that is infrequent and is resolved promptly.

“We encourage anyone to call us directly if they know of any problems Alabamians are having getting their application reviewed. Often concerns which were raised publicly were not previously brought to our attention. Despite our assurance to some advocacy groups that we will directly address any landlord or tenant’s concern, the groups rarely refer anyone to us.

“Treasury places a heavy responsibility upon AHFA, alone, to root out fraud. And rightfully so. It requires extra work to press for more or clarifying information where the applicant is not being forthcoming. We have uncovered numerous instances of suspected fraud where, when we probe the applicant for additional information, they withdraw or abandon the effort. Because of privacy concerns, we can’t show you that information, but it’s part of the story of administering ERA.

“To deal quickly with applicants facing eviction, we created the Imminent Eviction Prevention Initiative in collaboration with Legal Services Alabama. This allows for expedited processing of an application for households facing eviction, usually within 14 days.”

The Alabama Housing Authority said 73,029 applications were received for the Emergency Rental Assistance Alabama program since September. By September, 3,451 households had been approved for payment.

Here is a breakdown of applications since September of this year:

⦁ Applications submitted: 73,029

⦁ Applications withdrawn for abandonment of applicant to complete: 44,263

⦁ Applications denied as ineligible: 1,087

⦁ Applications started by applicant but awaiting their finishing: 10,464

⦁ Applications in stages of follow-up to acquire missing information: 6,980

⦁ Applications approved and paid: 3,451

⦁ Applications approved, payment imminent: 6,784

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