Funds-strapped Shelby County Emergency Rental Assistance Program

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In August, local authorities announced the end of a massive COVID-19 housing assistance program as if it were inevitable.

The federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which covered unpaid rent and overdue utility bills for low-income tenants, would no longer accept applications because the local portion of the funds was running outsaid Ashley Cash, director of the City of Memphis Housing and Community Development Division.

What Cash didn’t say was that there were millions more available to protect Shelby County residents from eviction, but his team had quietly decided not to apply for the extra funds released. this autumn.

The city-county decision came as tenants face rental rates 30% higher than before the pandemic and inflation is driving up the cost of food and other living expenses.

Since the start of COVID-19, there have been fewer eviction requests, which increase tenants blood pressure and their risk of sleep in a homeless shelter or even die by suicide. But because at least some of that drop can be attributed to the ERA funds themselves, local officials’ choice to forgo more of those funds is puzzling. Since August, the federal government has continued to reallocate hundreds of millions of ERA dollars from cities and states with a surplus to those that could use more. The local version of the program — a city-county partnership — had received $72 million in previous reallocations. But when the federal government offered communities more housing assistance in recent months, city-county leaders did not apply.

Griffin

Shelby County Community Services Director Dorcas Young Griffin, who leads the program on the county side, said the city and county did not apply so they could focus on remaining spending before the date. December 29 limit that applies to most of them.

Cash gave similar reasoning, saying the home team – which has long stretched – did not feel ready to apply for the additional funding, after discussions between “a collaboration of people”.

“There are a lot of decisions that come into play,” Cash said. “From the outside, looking inside, it’s like, ‘Keep applying.’ … With where we are (we didn’t think so), the time had come.

It’s unclear if Cash’s team consulted with elected officials before making their decision. Memphis City Councilman Martavius ​​Jones said council had not been briefed on those discussions and would like to hear from Cash directly.

A sign pointing to Room 134, where people could apply for emergency rental assistance, hangs on the wall of Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court in March.

“My first reaction is shock,” Jones said. “When we look at the number of people in our communities who need this kind of assistance, I am both shocked and disappointed that we are giving up and saying we don’t need it.”

After MLK50 reached out to him for the story, board member Chase Carlisle said he asked the administration to update the board on the program at its Tuesday meeting.

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“The negative effects of COVID on the economy and people’s lives are in full swing,” Carlisle said. “Making sure we take full advantage of federal housing assistance is more important than ever.

According to federal data, the Memphis-Shelby County program helped more than 24,000 households between March 2021 and June 2022, although some households may have been helped twice. This is by far the largest rent arrears relief program the county has ever seen.

Young Griffin and Cash said the city and county may seek future reallocations after spending their existing funds. However, Cash previously said the local program was ending and his website said he would “not be accepting any more applications of any type after August 31”.

Including those submitted in August, Cash said the city and county now have enough pending applications — about 8,000 — to spend the roughly $37 million they have left.

Two different deadlines

Federal ERA funding is of two types: ERA 1 and ERA 2. All ERA 1 funds must be spent by December 29, but ERA 2 funds do not expire until September 2025 Almost all of the remaining local funds are ERA $1.00 dollars that originally belonged to the state of Tennessee but were reallocated to Memphis and Shelby County in January and March.

In September, the federal government reassigned An additional $460 million from ERA 1. If the city-county program had applied and been selected for some of these funds, it would have had to spend them – plus its own remaining ERA 1 money – in about three months .

“(A) challenge is to make sure you don’t have this huge batch of funding with an expiration date and you can’t meet it and return the money anyway,” Cash said. . (Based on U.S. Treasury Department Guidelines, it seems that cities are not penalized when they do not meet spending deadlines; they simply have to return the unspent funds.)

However, the city-county program also did not request a recent reassignment of ERA 2. On October 18, the federal government announced the recipients $288 million of these funds. And, more will be made available in the months and years to come, should Memphis and Shelby County decide to raise their hands again.

Funding, staffing and support gaps

Although the local program was quicker to secure funds for families in need than programs in most peer cities, it was not without flaws.

In August 2021, MLK50 found that the program’s outreach effort was underfunded, its office staff was overstretched, and there were far too few lawyers to guide tenants through the process.

Many of these issues stemmed from federal guidelines, which only allowed 10% of ERA 1 funds and 15% of ERA 2 funds to be spent on administrative costs — not enough to staff a new program. important government. However, faced with these same challenges, some municipalities proved to be faster than Memphis and Shelby County to distribute funds.

The local program has also been hampered by the lack of buy-in from civil court judges in the general sessions who deal with evictions. In a July 2022 surveyMLK50 reporters found that while these six judges were aware of the ERA funds, only three had told the tenants about it in court.

Thus, a tenant’s random assignment to the courtroom played a major role in their chances of receiving the funds.

Ryan Stittiams doesn’t understand why the city and county would end the program if they had the chance to keep it going.

A year ago, he and his five children were nearly kicked out of their Cordoba home and forced to move in with his mother. That downside and instability would have turned 2022 into a year he “(doesn’t) even want to think about,” he said.

“It’s not one of the wealthiest cities in the world, like it is…putting people (when) you have the funds (available) to help is so detrimental,” Stittiams said.

Stittiams was able to get in touch with program officials immediately after his first eviction hearing – which would not be possible for someone in his place now that new applications are not being accepted.

The program covered one year’s rent, which allowed her to pay other bills. In 2022, he said he fell behind on rent a few times, but he was able to keep his family rooted in their home.

Without the local program, residents of Shelby County will still be able to Applying for the state of Tennessee version of the curriculum. However, the state has been much slower in granting funds and is therefore not as helpful to people like Stittiams, who was about to be deported when he asked for help.

The absence of the local program frightens Mary Hamlett, who runs the Metropolitan Interfaith Association working with families who have lost their homes.

Without it as a ledge to cling to, many more Memphis residents could fall into homelessness, she said.

“Without another safety net program like this, I don’t even want to try to say what we’re going to see,” she said.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms.

Ryan H. Bowman