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Rent aid missing the rural, say critics; unspent funds go to Northwest Arkansas

by Tess Vrbin | February 28, 2022 at 3:57 a.m.
A sheriff's deputy posts a final eviction notice on an apartment in this 2009 file photo.

Benton and Washington counties are set to receive an additional $23 million to distribute to tenants who are behind on rent and utilities because of covid-19, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

That money was initially earmarked for renters across the rest of the state, but the Treasury Department reallocated the funds because they hadn't been spent or committed.

The redistribution of rental help, here and across the U.S., has raised concerns about rural America, where tenants are often unaware such programs exist or face barriers to accessing the funds.

The two Northwest Arkansas counties already distributed a cumulative $27 million in rental assistance after receiving the first round of federal funds in 2021.

The new $23 million comes from the initial pot of money the federal government gave to the Arkansas Department of Human Services in 2021. Since both county programs were distributing funds quickly and the region still has a sizable population in need of rent aid, they were selected to receive some of the repurposed funds, according to the Treasury Department.

Members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., have warned that the redistribution of rental assistance could overlook communities.

"Taking money away from rural communities like those across Arkansas ignores the acute housing problems that exist outside of America's big cities," he said in a statement last month.

The Department of Human Services received $173 million from the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act at the beginning of 2021 and started distributing it to tenants in 72 of Arkansas' 75 counties. Pulaski County, like the two northwestern counties, received its own allocation based on population. The state started accepting rental assistance applications from Pulaski County in November when the county's federal rent relief supply was running low.

Arkansas received a total of $211.1 million in rent relief funds from the federal government, and so far, $156.1 million has been distributed by the Department of Human Services and the state's three largest counties.

Pandemic rent relief covers past-due rent back to April 1, 2020. It also can cover missed utility payments and up to three months of future rent.

The state's remaining $32 million does not include the $23 million that Northwest Arkansas will receive, Human Services spokesman Gavin Lesnick said in an email.

Benton County will receive $20 million and Washington County will receive $3 million. As of last week, neither county had received the reallocated funds yet.

Nationwide, the U.S. Treasury Department shifted a total of $1.1 billion.

Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month that the federal government should have given states the freedom to measure their individual needs while distributing rent relief.

"I don't think Treasury did a very good job from the outset in giving enough leeway to the states," he said.

Hill is the ranking Republican on the Housing, Community Development, and Insurance Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. His concerns for rural tenants are shared by the subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who told Politico in December that rural communities have "acute housing problems that frankly are oftentimes overlooked because the attention is on big-city housing issues."

As of Feb. 4, the Department of Human Services program had helped 17,231 households with rent and utilities, according to department data. Sixteen counties, all containing large or medium-sized cities, have each received at least $1 million.

Craighead County had the largest number of paid households, $7.1 million split among 1,819 households. Jefferson County received the second-most, $6.9 million.

Meanwhile, 1,810 Pulaski County households had received aid, totaling nearly $6.7 million, from the state's program. Pulaski County distributed the last of its own $11.1 million allocation of federal funds shortly after the state absorbed the county into its program.

The amount of aid given and number of households paid throughout the rest of the state varies. Three households in Newton County have received a total of $14,836, the smallest amount of aid in any county.

Meanwhile, 36 social services agencies statewide received more than $18 million from the Department of Human Services in 2020 through the state's Emergency Solutions Grant program for covid-19 aid. The annual grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was funded in 2020 by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

The state uses CARES funds to reimburse the 36 agencies for their work helping renters affected by covid-19 stay housed. Some agencies also distribute some of the $173 million allocation and receive reimbursement, Lesnick said.

Both the state's program and the Emergency Solutions Grant funds have sometimes been frustrating for tenants to access and for the grantee agencies to help distribute, according to several agency leaders.

The Hope In Action emergency shelter in Hope distributes state rent relief funds to renters in Hempstead, Howard and Nevada counties. Board Chairman Paul Henley said the agency can only distribute as much money as it has on hand at any given moment.

"We're always a little reluctant to give out the funds when we don't know when we're going to be reimbursed," Henley said.

'HEAVY WORKLOAD'

Leaders of the Arkansas River Valley Area Council, one of the Emergency Solutions Grant recipients, acknowledged there may be higher numbers of people in need of rent relief and stable housing in more populous areas, but there is still a significant need in rural areas.

Council CEO Stephanie Garner, who is also a member the Arkansas Development Finance Authority board of directors, said low-income housing is placed in areas that are growing the most economically, and that growth tends to be concentrated in larger cities and metropolitan areas.

"It's dwindling our rural communities even further," Garner said. "People are going to go where the growth is, where the places of stability can be."

The council does not have the money to hire enough staff to process applications and distribute funds quickly enough to meet the needs of all renters in the nine counties it serves while following program rules, "sending every shred of documents to prove it," said Garner and Elizabeth Roberson, the agency's chief officer of crisis intervention and housing.

"There was some heavy workload on our staff that wasn't necessarily communicated on the front end," Roberson said.

Lesnick said Tuesday that Emergency Solutions Grant recipients must have enough existing funds and staff to administer the program before receiving the grant award.

"The applicants provide an organizational chart identifying who will do what activities within the program," Lesnick said. "DHS cannot assist in this matter."

The agencies must submit monthly invoices with a list of required documents to be reimbursed, according to the Emergency Solutions Grant Policy and Procedures Manual. The invoices must be submitted on forms approved by the Department of Human Services' Office of Community Services.

However, Garner said some "mom and pop" landlords in rural areas use handwritten lease agreements due to a lack of technological resources, and the state does not always recognize those documents and reimburse them accordingly.

Henley noted that Hope In Action can only help tenants who have been served with eviction notices because the documents are necessary in order for the agency to be reimbursed. Those tenants can still apply for state aid but won't receive help from Hope In Action with their applications, Henley said.

The state also restricts the distribution of most Emergency Solutions Grant funds to units below the Fair Market Rent ceiling, determined regionally by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Garner and Roberson said it is difficult for the Arkansas River Valley Area Council to find units below Fair Market Rent in each of the nine counties it serves. The rent ceilings in this region vary from $444 per month in Logan County to $706 in Perry County, since the latter is part of the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area.

"We can have all the money in the world, but if it's not an eligible unit based on price, that money will just be sitting in the bank," Garner said.

The Department of Human Services waived the Fair Market Rent requirement for the distribution of covid-19 relief funds so tenants who pay more than the rent ceiling can still receive aid. Garner said this has been "helpful for the short term."

DIGITAL DIVIDE

Not all Emergency Solutions Grant recipients help local tenants fill out applications for state rent relief, but Samaritan Outreach in Dardanelle volunteered to help in this way, Executive Director Mary Thompson said.

However, the agency does not have a way of knowing whether those tenants actually receive state aid, she said.

Thompson said she agreed with concerns the state might not have enough funds to help all rural Arkansas tenants in need. The shortage of broadband internet access is a major disconnect between the state and rural renters, Thompson said.

"We have a lot of individuals who are contacting us right now who are just finding out that this program even existed," she said Feb. 16.

Tenants can only apply for state rent relief online, and there is no paper application, Lesnick said. As for making sure rural Arkansans are aware of the program, the Department of Human Services has enlisted its grantee agencies to spread the word and has advertised the program in television, radio and print media, Lesnick said.

In January, the department paused its acceptance of rent relief applications in order to "ensure we don't take in more eligible applications than we can fund," department spokeswoman Amy Webb said at the time. The department enacted the pause when it altered the distribution process so checks would be issued to both the tenant and the landlord as a fraud prevention measure, at the urging of some concerned state legislators.

Lesnick said the department has not yet set a date for reopening applications.

Without immediate help from the state, tenants in need turn to their local agencies for help, said Jeremy Wooldridge, CEO of Crowley's Ridge Development Council. The agency is based in Jonesboro but serves eight counties, many of which are rural.

The increase in applications for aid should not slow down the "diligent team" in charge of processing them and distributing funds that the state will reimburse, Wooldridge said, but "we're just going to run out of [reimbursible] funding quicker than we anticipated."

He said the council has requested a larger grant allocation from the Department of Human Services.

Renters and housing advocates were also frustrated with the rent relief program in its early months because it initially required landlords to submit matching applications for each tenant, and some landlords refused to participate.

The Department of Human Services loosened the requirement in September 2021 after pressure from Congress.

Garner and Roberson said this change made the state's program more efficient, and the issuance of two-party checks should do the same. But community organizations could still use some help with the administration of pandemic relief regardless of the funding source.

"If I could just take out a checkbook and write them a check, I would, but that's not possible with these programs," Garner said.


Print Headline: Rent aid missing the rural, say critics; unspent funds go to Northwest Arkansas

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