New eviction moratorium could buy time to ramp up emergency rental assistance

Montana has disbursed $14.3 million of $352 million available rental assistance funds

By: - August 6, 2021 6:12 pm

(Photo illustration by Getty Images.)

Montana, like states across the nation, has struggled to spend down its emergency rental assistance funds — whether due to hefty documentation requirements that limit some potential applicants, logistical challenges, staffing or a lack of public awareness.

The state has awarded $14.3 million to 2,594 households out of an available $352 million for COVID-19 related rental assistance as of August 3, the Department of Commerce said Friday. Around 800 applications are currently under review, with an average turnaround of about 20 days, the department said.

Rachel Turnbow, with the Montana Legal Services Association, said if a renter is on the verge of being evicted, a more than two-week turnaround to get an application for rental assistance processed won’t always seem like an option.

“You’re thinking, I’m not gonna get this for two weeks, and the sheriff could come to my door tomorrow,” she said.

At the beginning of the week, the demand for that money looked likely to rise, with the expiration of the longstanding COVID-19 eviction moratorium. However, after a few days of vacillation and rising political pressure, the White House launched a new, more narrowly tailored federal eviction moratorium this week with an unusual disclaimer: the Biden Administration made clear it believed the new order would face intense legal backlash and may not hold up in the courts at all, but nevertheless could create more time for rental assistance to go out to eligible tenants.

In a press availability Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that legal scholars were split on the constitutionality of the new moratorium, which targets only counties that have high or substantial levels of COVID-19 community spread. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously signaled in a ruling on a challenge to the last moratorium that any extension or revival of the order would be unlikely to get past the courts unless it had congressional approval.

So why bother? Biden was transparent: Congress allocated $45 billion in emergency rental assistance, and the vast majority still hasn’t been allocated to landlords and tenants. So even if the new moratorium is challenged in court, “it will probably give some additional time while we’re getting that $45 billion out to people,” he said Tuesday.

Cheryl Cohen, housing division administrator with the Department of Commerce, said Montana is doing relatively well but also working to improve the way it’s processing applications.

“Our team is participating in strategy calls with other states on a weekly basis to learn about other best practices and ways to expedite application and award processes,” Cohen said. “Montana continues to perform well in comparison with other states, especially given our significantly smaller population.”

For example: Nebraska, population roughly two million, has awarded $5.6 million to 2,311 households. Missouri, population 6.16 million, has awarded $13.45 million.

Eligible enters in the Montana emergency rental assistance program can receive up to $2,200 a month for past, current and future rent payments back to April of last year. They can also receive up to $300 a month for utilities and $50 a month for internet. To qualify, an applicant’s gross household income cannot exceed 80 percent of the area median income, and the person must demonstrate that a member of the household has experienced financial strife because of COVID-19 and as a result, is at risk of experiencing homelessness.

As part of their applications, renters must provide their 2020 tax returns or two months of paystubs, a lease agreement and a demonstration of need. Assistance is available for a maximum of 15 months, of which each application is good for three. The Department of Commerce has rejected a little over 1,000 applicants due to ineligibility or duplicate applications, Cohen said. She added that the department’s current system can’t distinguish between what’s an ineligible application and what’s simply a duplicate, “an item we are working to remedy with a system upgrade in process.”

One reason that rental money has been slow to go out the door is the array of structural barriers that lower-income people — especially those at risk of losing their homes — already face, said Turnbow, a project coordinator with the Montana Legal Services Association, which is partnering with the Department of Commerce on eviction prevention services. That could mean limited or no access to internet, disability, childcare needs, multiple jobs and so on.

“There’s so many things that impact adversely the access to services,” she said. 

Some don’t know the assistance is available; others, she said, may not understand their rights when faced with eviction.

Cohen said Commerce is partnering with nonprofits throughout the state like NeighborWorks Montana to provide technical assistance to applicants who might not have a computer or internet, or just need help figuring out the application. This network also “amplifies” the department’s outreach efforts for the program, she said.

“We continue to strive for the appropriate balance in getting funds awarded expediently, while simultaneously working to detect and prevent potential scams and fraud,” Cohen said. 

Around 19,000 Montanans are behind on rent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at risk of eviction or qualify for emergency rental assistance, but shows the financial precarity that many in the state face, said Heather O’Loughlin, who leads research at the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

Some of these people might benefit from the assistance — and might very well have been economically impacted by the coronavirus — but don’t qualify for the income requirements, she said. Or, for the reasons that Turnbow mentioned, they do qualify but haven’t successfully submitted applications.

Far fewer people are accessing the assistance than I think are eligible for it to begin with,” O’Loughlin said. “And I think there’s also a question of what those eligibility requirements are.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.