Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said last month that about $86 million in federal funding to support housing stability programs wasn't needed in the state's current economy, but data shows evictions are higher throughout the state than they've been in the past five years.
As of Friday, 2,855 evictions had been filed in state courts since the start of 2022, per an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis. The number is 45% higher than evictions filed last year over the same period. It is also 60% higher than evictions filed over the same period in 2018, two years before the covid-19 pandemic.
Arkansas became one of two states, along with Nebraska, to refuse the funding through the Emergency Rental Assistance program on April 19, in a letter to the U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Hutchinson told Yellen he would draw down no more than 39% on the $146 million offered. This would give the state about $60 million in funds.
The state received $173 million from the U.S. Treasury in 2021 for families behind on rent and utility payments because of covid-19.
When asked about the rising evictions, the governor said, "The unemployment rate in Arkansas remains at a record low, and it is also lower than the national employment rate. There are economic opportunities available for our citizens who can work."
He also said that drawing certain conclusions from eviction data ignores the federal moratorium on evictions for most of 2020 and half of 2021.
"Because landlords were prevented by these federal mandates from pursuing evictions during 2020 and 2021, one would expect a larger number of evictions to have been filed in 2022," Hutchinson said in an email.
While there was a moratorium in place, the state still saw 1,962 and 1,748 evictions filed in 2021 and 2020, respectively, from Jan. 1 to late May. Evictions filed pre-pandemic totaled 2,043 in 2019 and 1,780 in 2018 during the same period.
"We are not out of the pandemic yet," said Neil Sealy, an Arkansas Renters United organizer. "We are certainly really far away from getting out of the economic impact that families have felt."
He said rising rent, fuel and grocery costs are compacting on top of financial issues Arkansans have endured through loss of work, illness and childcare struggles.
"We need the rental assistance in the state to meet the crises," Sealy said. "We needed it weeks ago. I think we will continue to see increases in evictions."
Kendall Lewellen, Center for Arkansas Legal Services manager of the housing program, said a majority of evictions filed are for nonpayment of rent. She also said she's continuing to see a rise in evictions filed.
There are a few reasons evictions could be rising, Lewellen said. She agreed the moratoriums lifting could have a part. She also added that the Arkansas Rent Relief Program stopped taking new applications in April.
The program is where about $100 million of the federal funds were used to help 33,000 people struggling from covid-19 pay rent or utilities. Some 121 applications are still being processed from the program and are expected to receive about $400,000 in assistance, said Gavin Lesnick, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
Another $23 million from the funds was reallocated to Benton and Washington counties, which received their own pots of federal money to distribute among renters because of their large populations. Pulaski County also had its own program until it distributed all its funds and was absorbed into the Arkansas Rent Relief Program.
"I do think the rental assistance program is a good one," Lewellen said. "I think it is good for tenants and it is good for landlords. I want us to take advantage of this opportunity that we have."
Even with rising evictions, Hutchinson said the state doesn't need any more funding.
"It would be improper for Arkansas to accept money that goes above and beyond what it needs," said Hutchinson, who is considering a run for president. "The $57.2 million in funds for housing stability coupled with the direct rental assistance funds that remain available are sufficient given our economic climate."
The Treasury Department plans to give the unspent funds from the last round of funding to California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey, where demand for rent relief is highest.
When asked why not take the federal funds for Arkansans, when it will still be spent on rental assistance in another state, Hutchinson responded that he hopes the government "would use the unused funds in a way that meets other needs and with the greatest amount of flexibility for the states."
Hutchinson also previously said the state is shifting its focus from supporting individuals who may have had short-term economic challenges from the pandemic to helping families achieve long-term economic stability and growth.
"Our goal is for families to support themselves and achieve housing stability now and into the future," he said. "Continuing to provide direct rental assistance when we do not believe it is needed undermines this effort."
Nonprofits, such as Our House and Restore Hope, if approved by the Treasury Department, will be used to continue providing rental assistance and other "housing stability services that will better enable families to achieve long-term economic stability, Hutchinson said.
Our House and Restore Hope provide case management style programs that help connect those struggling with resources. Our House, for example, will help families get connected to programs such as government aid for health care, according to the website.
Lewellen said caseworkers are important and she supports housing stability programs that help Arkansans.
"You can invest in the housing stability programs and also take all the money," Lewellen said. "The things are not mutually exclusive."
Hutchinson said about $6.7 million remains in the state for rental programs such as the Emergency Solutions Grant program, the Community Services Block Grant program and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The Emergency Solutions Grant was funded in 2020 by the CARES Act, though it is available to the states every year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Arkansas has nearly $6 million of these funds to help tenants who are homeless, facing eviction within 14 days or fleeing domestic violence, Lesnick said.
Renters who are still housed must provide an eviction notice or a written and verified statement as proof they are at "imminent risk of homelessness" to be eligible for Emergency Solutions Grant aid, according to the grant policy and procedures manual from the state Department of Human Services.
"Applicants must also certify that they have no place to go if evicted and that they lack the financial resources and support networks necessary to obtain permanent housing," the manual states.
The Arkansas Rent Relief Program prioritized applicants who were imminently facing eviction, though an eviction notice was not necessary in order to receive aid. The program covered past-due rent back to April 1, 2020, as well as missed utility payments and up to three months of future rent.
The Community Services Block Grant Program, meant to alleviate conditions of poverty, is distributed annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Lesnick said this program has $388,500 available to renters statewide, with 15 social services agencies distributing them.
Households with incomes up to 125% of the poverty income guidelines are eligible for Community Services Block Grant funds. The 2022 federal poverty level for a family of two is an income of $18,310 per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Congress allocated $3.4 million in Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to Arkansas in April. Participating agencies throughout the state cover tenants' unpaid utility bills with these funds. The program does not cover unpaid rent. Eligible households have a monthly income of as low as $1,859 for one person, according to the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment.
Sealy said there aren't clear outlines from the state on how to apply to the other programs and funding is scattered to multiple agencies throughout the state.
He said Renters United previously sent information about how to apply for funds through the rental relief program to those facing eviction.
Now the organization is sending out information on how to connect to legal services to fight the evictions. They are asking those in need to call the governor to ask for more funds.
"I've talked to a lot of people," Sealy said. "Most of the people I'm talking to are working but they were previously laid off. They have had covid. They've had issues with sick children. I don't think the governor understands the horrendous impact of having an eviction on your record."
Sealy said it is better to help families before they are evicted. After an eviction, it is harder to find decent housing because many landlords won't accept the application.
"I think he's turned his back on the poorest people in the state, and that's a shame," Sealy said, "but we are not letting him off the hook and he needs to know that."