Calls from tenants seeking emergency rental assistance are escalating in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that blocked a national eviction moratorium.
The Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) has 60 application processors working to distribute hundreds of millions in federal aid and has been fielding about 500 calls and responding to about 200 emails per week, Steven Whitson, community initiatives manager, told the commission in a meeting Wednesday morning.
The agency’s workload spiked after the high court on Thursday evening ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority with the moratorium.
“The word from our staffing agency this morning is that they are starting to see a pretty high volume,” Whitson said.
With evictions proceeding in many of the state’s judicial circuits, getting rental assistance out the door is becoming more urgent.
So far, Whitson said, almost 14,000 Missourians have been helped and the State Assistance for Housing Relief, or SAFHR, program has distributed between $3 million and $4 million a week since early July.
According to data online, the commission has distributed $45.2 million of the $324 million the state has received so far to cover unpaid rent and utility bills incurred since April 2020. Applications from 8,968 households have been approved.
That is just a small fraction of the estimated 150,000 to 230,000 Missouri households at risk of eviction.
The slow pace of distributing rental assistance funds nationwide has become a source of controversy as courts again are ordering evictions and mortgage holders are moving to foreclose on unpaid debts.
The U.S. Treasury released data last week showing that only 11% of the $46.5 billion approved by Congress for emergency rental assistance has been allocated. Of the $5.1 billion spent so far, $1.7 billion was doled out during July.
There is no federal mortgage assistance to distribute yet because the U.S. Treasury has not finished processing applications from states, Jennifer Schmidt, deputy director of operations for the MHDC.
The final guidance was not issued until Aug. 6, she said, and the MHDC submitted its application by the Aug. 20 deadline.
On rental assistance, staff is working to streamline applications, reducing the paperwork requirements, while increasing the number of not-for-profit groups helping spread information about the program and help applicants, Whitson said.
By the end of the week, there will be 19 agencies working with the commission, plus groups providing legal help for renters being sued in eviction proceedings.
“We want landlords to get paid and keep people in their houses because that’s good for everybody,” Whitson said.
In the state’s largest metropolitan areas, local governments received funds to help with rental assistance, he said. The housing commission’s program focused on other, more rural areas of the state at first and it is now expanding its outreach.
“What we want to do going forward is increase our marketing presence in the urban areas because there is a real concentration of need in those areas,” Whitson said.
Both landlords and tenants have complained about the application process and the speed of payments.
Steve Vogel, president of the Missouri Property Owners Association, has 20 tenant properties in Jackson County. So far, he said in an interview with The Independent, he’s participated in three rental assistance applications, and three different organizations processed them, including the state program.
All of them had months-long delays.
For the past few weeks, he’s been expecting a check from the state.
“The rent is due again, so it’s time to go see what happened with that check,” Vogel said. “Let’s just say they’re not a lot more reliable than a bad tenant.”
Under the commission’s program, the state will pay all past-due rent from April 2020 forward and up to three months additional rent in advance. While the moratorium was in place, waiting for applications to be approved made sense, Vogel said.
But with paperwork issues – Vogel filed a document that could not be read and did not learn about it until the tenant called to check on the status of the application – in some cases the delays have been several months, he said.
“Before the end of the moratorium, if it took them three months to get the money out, well what else you got to do?” Vogel said. “But now, I would think twice about that.”
The KC Regional Housing Alliance, a group of more than 1,000 landlords and investors, have been hosting virtual seminars to inform themselves and their tenants about the rental assistance available — because they didn’t see the state doing it.
“Missouri is not getting the word out,” said Stacey Johnson-Crosby, a leader with the alliance.
Their members believe evictions should be a last resort, and they want to get the federal relief money flowing, she said. However, they are often seeing a three-month turnaround time from the time the application is submitted — even when landlords try to help the tenants apply.
“If they ever do find out about it, the whole application process is cumbersome and frustrating,” she said. “There’s delays at every part of the process.”
One of the helpful changes in paperwork requirements is allowing renters to apply without providing income documentation, said Elad Gross, an attorney volunteering as a community outreach specialist with the St. Louis Mediation Project.
But processing time remains a big issue, he said.
“It can take up to two weeks to process the rental assistance requests,” Gross said. “During that time, some renters are being charged additional late fees. In some cases, landlords are taking renters who have applied for assistance to court and seeking an eviction.”
The commission is hiring more people to process applications and the time needed to complete processing is falling, Whitson said. The average time for applications in August was 16 days, he said.
“We approve and fund approximately 95 to 97 percent of applications,” he said. “If there are no corrections as submitted, we are able to pay those out very quickly.”
This story was republished with permission from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.