Housing help in state shows pinch of pandemic

A sheriff's deputy posts a final eviction notice on an apartment in this 2009 file photo.
A sheriff's deputy posts a final eviction notice on an apartment in this 2009 file photo.

Less than a week after its launch, organizers of one of Arkansas' largest rental assistance programs added a disclaimer to its website.

"Due to high demand some systems, including email responses, may be operating at a delay," a yellow banner at the top of the Arkansas Fresh Start website reads. "We are working to fix any issues as they arise. Your patience is appreciated."

Arkansas Fresh Start is one of several rental assistance programs across the state trying to meet a spike in need caused in part by the covid-19 global pandemic. Fresh Start aims to provide 2 1/2 months of rent for eligible residents, and applications can be accessed at arfreshstart.com.

The banner is emblematic of what many housing assistance providers and advocates say: the need is great, and resources are stretched thin.

Economic decline and job loss caused by the covid-19 pandemic have left many people nationwide unable to pay their rent, experts say. In Arkansas, about one-third of residents are renters.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order banning evictions for nonpayment of rent for tenants who meet certain qualifications. The moratorium expires at the end of December.

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Experts and advocates have said they fear that without more rental assistance funding, renters will face mountains of debt in unpaid rent and late fees.

The order, which puts the onus on renters to state that they qualify so they can avoid eviction, doesn't put a freeze on rental payments. Evictions have continued in Arkansas, too.

More than 1,100 unlawful detainer cases have been filed in Arkansas courts since Sept. 4, the first day the CDC order was in effect. Unlawful detainer is the most common type of eviction in the state.

Here's a look at some of the help programs for renters.

'Fresh Start'

Arkansas lawmakers approved a portion of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to launch Arkansas Fresh Start. It's a $10 million program funded in combined grants from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee. The Arkansas Community Action Agencies Association is administering the money.

"We recognized that while the moratorium protects people from being evicted, it does not come with any funding," said Terry Bearden, the association's executive director. " ... We sought to find a way to prevent them from having that huge accumulation of rental arrearage, as well as there's that second piece that landlords are being placed in a difficult economic situation."

Bearden estimates the program will help about 8,000 families and will likely run out by mid-December. The application is essentially the same as the declaration form tenants must sign to certify that they qualify under the CDC moratorium.

They must have tried to obtain other government assistance for housing, earn less than $99,000 a year, be unable to pay rent or their housing payment because of a loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses, try to make timely partial payments even without the help, and -- if evicted -- would likely be homeless or forced into a congregate-living setting.

Additionally, landlords have to promise to waive any late fees and not to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent until the end of the year, Bearden said.

That's true of many programs nationally, said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. He said that research has found landlords are generally more willing to waive late fees than to waive the rest of the unpaid rent, which some programs have tried to require.

"There are ways to tweak these programs to encourage more landlords to cooperate and participate with the programs," he said. "And states are learning that. It's a learning process."

He added that in some cases, requiring landlord participation can keep renters from getting the help they need.

"The one thing out of their control is they can't control whether the landlord complies with the landlord requirement part of the program," he said.

'Emergency Solutions'

Agencies that got CARES Act funding through Emergency Solutions Grants dispersed through the Department of Human Services have to inspect properties and work with landlords to get the dwellings fixed before tenants can receive money. Under that grant program, properties have to meet federal standards.

Arkansas is the only state that doesn't have state-level standards for properties, called warranty of habitability. Generally, federal standards apply only to certain publicly funded housing, such as Section 8. Renters also must provide documentation of their need by providing paperwork such as an eviction notice, said Mary Franklin, director of the Division of County Offices.

The state Department of Human Services got two rounds of CARES Act funding through this program -- the first for $7.8 million and the second for $15 million, Franklin said.

The department plans to check back in with the 43 agencies that received money to see if they need more, because all the money wasn't used in the first round of awards, Franklin said. Initially, the department sent out two requests for proposals and held an interest call to explain the programs.

The division sent letters to local agencies, nonprofits and governments letting them know how much money they'd been allotted on Aug. 4.

The money can be used to reimburse agencies for costs going back to March 31, Franklin said. As of the end of October, the department hadn't completed its review of September invoices to determine how much of the money had been used for reimbursements and how much had been awarded to Arkansans in need. The department didn't provide an update as to the status of the review as of Friday.

The Covid-19 Emergency Solutions Grants can be used for street outreach, homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing or emergency shelter programs.

Agency leaders interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said they were awarded money for rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention on a first-come, first-serve basis. Rapid rehousing is a program designed to quickly put people experiencing homeless in housing, and homeless prevention provides rental or utility assistance to people at risk of becoming homeless.

The city of Little Rock and Pulaski County governments, which both got grant money for rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention, are doing inspections in-house.

'Further behind'

In September, Pulaski County got 184 calls from people asking for rental assistance, many more than normal, said Fred Love, the community services director. He thinks his agency will be able to help about 15 households.

Kevin Howard, the Little Rock director of Housing and Neighborhood programs, said in years past, his department usually received 20 to 30 calls per year asking for rental assistance. This year, it's 20 to 30 per week.

"That's not enough funding," Howard said. "That's just the tip of the iceberg."

Nonprofits also reported that their staff is stretched with the extra work. At the Ouachita Children, Youth & Family Services in Hot Springs, employees stay busy taking applications for assistance and gathering paperwork verifying applicants' income, said Sue Legal, the director of planning and compliance.

The Riverview Hope Campus, a homeless shelter in Fort Smith, received the most emergency solutions grant money at $1.7 million. Most of it is for emergency shelter. Director Chris Joannides said it will go to expand the shelter and provide more distance between clients to prevent the spread of covid.

"Everybody is out there getting further and further behind every day," he said, adding that he anticipates an increase in homelessness in coming months.

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