Pandemic housing-assistance program open to non-pandemic applicants

The state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program still has more than $400 million

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State and local resources have provided housing aid to many victims of the devastating Marshall fire in Boulder County. But another barely touched pot of money comes from an unlikely source: federal COVID relief funds.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which pays up to 15 months of rent for those experiencing pandemic income loss, has moved to phase two in Colorado. The program also is now open to those with recent financial hardship, even if reasons are unrelated to COVID-19.

“It’s a change in language that allows us to get help to people who may have been impacted by the Marshall fire in one way or another,” Jim Williams, a spokesman for Boulder County Housing and Human Services, said. “A financial hardship could be interpreted in a number of different ways. So we encourage people to apply for assistance through the housing helpline (at 303-441-1206) if they think they qualify for it, or even if they don’t.”
A house is burned down by the Marshall Fire on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Superior, Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Williams estimated that so far, about four Marshall fire victims are on ERAP, which covers future and past-due rent. The low demand may be due to income restrictions, he said. Eligible residents must make no more than 80% of the county’s median income, or $65,520 for one person and up to $123,520 for a family of eight. But Williams believes there’s a lot of need still out there, as well as all over the state. For fire victims, eligible cases could be folks who were forced to find alternative housing because their homes were damaged by ash or water.

“We’re sure that there are people out there who are not even aware that (ERAP) may be able to provide financial assistance for them,” he said.

The ERAP money comes from two federal COVID recovery packages that provided $47 billion in housing aid to Americans. Colorado’s share was roughly $690 million, with $385.1 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act and $304.7 million from the American Rescue Plan. In Colorado, the state’s Department of Local Affairs oversees more than half of the funds, while the rest was split between 10 cities and counties with more than 200,000 people.

And there’s still a lot of money left.

As of Dec. 31, DOLA had used just half of its first round of ERAP funds, called ERA1, and only 1.5% of its second round, or ERA2, according to the year-end U.S. Treasury report released last week. Most of the local governments had paid out 90% or all of their allotment and moved on to the second round.

Since two months have passed, the state and local governments are even further along. DOLA officials said at the end of January, they had reached 60.4% distributed to 20,600 households. There is still more than $400 million in federal funds available to Colorado’s rent-assistance programs.

Other states were much faster at getting their share of the funds to renters, including California, New Jersey and Virginia, which had dispensed 100% of ERA1 funds by the end of the year, according to Treasury Department data.

Colorado’s housing division struggled to disburse rent payments after ERAP debuted last spring. ERAP had new federal rules attached, causing the state to replace a program for renters and landlords that had been gaining momentum. The state had to essentially start over with ERAP to establish income limits — and that led to months-long delays for tenants. Demand also shot up as the U.S. eviction moratorium and pandemic unemployment benefits ended by September.

When delays worsened last year, nonprofit organizations like the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project set up the Colorado Stability Fund. The fund used a revolving line of credit provided by the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority to send rent payments to tenants and landlords first and then get reimbursed by the state later. The organization paid out $25 million in rent for 9,000 Coloradans, said Zach Neumann, the project’s executive director.

“The state, the nonprofits and all the community groups working on this have largely made their way through the very significant backlog that existed,” Neumann said.

It took months for the state, plus an out-of-state contractor, to get through the backlog of applications and for rent checks to start hitting accounts. The state went from distributing $2 million to $3 million a month to $17 million to $18 million at the end of the year. According to state housing officials, the state paid $22 million in rent in January.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way the system is working,” said Karen Arnold, a Denver-area landlord who spent a frustrating summer waiting on the state to cut an ERAP check for a tenant who had applied in February 2021. “Once you understand that the tenant’s account is frozen after a check is cut and how to reach an account rep easily, the system is trouble-free.”

A similar program for struggling Colorado homeowners to pay mortgage bills launched in November and is also available.
Demand still high

By the end of the year, 36,432 Colorado households had received assistance. About half went through the state’s program and the rest through their local government, according to Treasury Department data.

Demand continues to increase. For the past three months, an average of 4,200 applications came in each month. In December, there were 4,400, said Sarah Buss, director of the state’s Office of Housing Recovery.

“The state is processing about four-times more applications per month than it was in Winter 2021, and twice as many as in Spring 2021,” Buss said in an email. “(DOLA) attributes the increased demand for housing assistance funds to three trends: the growing importance of rental assistance, increasing awareness of housing recovery programs, and increases in rents.”

Housing nonprofits say they’re seeing the same thing as COVID cases decline in Colorado but people are still trying to find their way back to economic sustainability.

“The pace varies, but it hasn’t really slowed down dramatically,” Neumann said. “Now it’s about service continuation and making sure that (tenants have) the right resources, emergency rental assistance, processing, legal aid and community navigation lined up against the problem.”

With more eligibility flexibility in ERA2, Neumann said that some of the nonprofit organizations have offered to help the state out even more to get rent payments out to applicants more quickly.

“We stand ready to expand our services to help the state and our communities meet their ERA goals and to serve our neighbors,” he said.

Eight out of the 10 Colorado cities and counties that received ERAP money have run out of the first round, including Colorado Springs. Boulder County and the city of Denver had money left at the end of 2021, and that was roughly 50% of their allotment, according to Treasury Department data.

But the Treasury report may not include belated government updates. There is also the possibility of errors, which was the case for Douglas County’s September data. Official Treasury data had Douglas County’s ERA1 dispersal rate at more than 100%, but county officials told The Sun that instead of $7.7 million, the county disbursed around $700,000 for a 64.8% disbursement rate by the end of 2021.

Williams, with Boulder County, said that while the county still has ERA1 money left, it’s prioritizing the ERA2 “due to the flexibilities it provided with the expanded definition of COVID-19 impact. We may continue to access ERA1 funds in the future.”

Boulder County has disbursed half of its $9 million of ERA1 funds to 757 households, at an average of $5,548 each. It also paid out about $1 million of its $13 million in ERA2 funds to 247 households, for an average of $4,188 per household. Williams said the amounts are lower because the first round included large amounts of past-due rent that had built up during the eviction moratorium.

DOLA only recently began tapping into its share of ERA2 funds and does not have data to share. But other communities are well on their way.

The city of Aurora ran out of ERA1 funds last fall and moved to ERA2 in late 2021, said Jessica Prosser, director of Aurora’s Housing and Community Services.

So far, 900 applications have come in and the city has disbursed about $3 million of its $9 million ERA2 allotment. It paid out $9.4 million in ERA1 rent to 1,115 households last year. Applications are processed within a few days and payments are made within a couple of weeks.

“We’ve just tried really hard over the past couple of years to get funding out quickly because we know people are struggling,” Prosser said. “An extra week is really stressful for someone so we just put systems and processes in place to be able to issue payment quickly to folks, which goes to the landlord.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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