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Virus rental aid program announced in July slow to deliver


FILE – In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read “No Job No Rent” hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington. The pandemic has shut housing courts and prompted authorities around the U.S. to initiate policies protecting renters from eviction. But not everyone is covered, and some landlords are turning to threats and harassment to force tenants out. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A $24 million rental aid program Gov. John Bel Edwards announced in July for people facing eviction because of coronavirus -related lost wages has committed less than one-third of the assistance promised, even though demand was so high that applications were suspended within days.

The slow pace of aid is drawing criticism from state Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican who called program management by the Louisiana Housing Corporation “disastrous.”

Only 160 tenants have seen money paid to their landlords, according to information provided Tuesday by the governor’s office.

“We’ve got 40,000 applicants out there who have said, ‘We need help’ and submitted their paperwork,” McFarland said. “We’ve got the money in the bank to help them.”

The Democratic governor’s office said McFarland’s criticism contained inaccurate information, such as the source of financing for the program, and suggested that focusing on the small number of payments made to landlords on behalf of tenants is misleading.

Though only about $400,000 in rental payments have been made, Edwards spokeswoman Shauna Sanford said $7 million has been obligated. She said that has protected 3,000 families from eviction even if the dollars haven’t yet been turned over to landlords.

“Those people are not getting kicked out of their homes. They’ve already been in touch with their landlords. But they need to complete the application process,” Sanford said.

Edwards said in mid-July that Louisiana would offer $24 million in emergency rent assistance to low-income residents faced with the threat of eviction because their paychecks took a hit during the coronavirus outbreak. The Louisiana Housing Corporation started taking applications for the program that same day, with federal dollars to finance the program.

Demand was so great — more than 40,000 renters quickly started the application process — that the housing agency stopped accepting applications for the program within four days.

The program has $19 million of the $24 million in federal financing planned to spend on the emergency rental aid, Sanford said. The remaining $5 million is expected in October. The governor’s office blamed federal restrictions on the housing dollars and incomplete applications for the slow pace of aid.

“Due to the burdensome and complex federal requirements and the delay in applicant response, it often takes longer than we would like, but efforts are being made to streamline the process as much as federal requirements will allow,” Sanford said.

The governor’s office responded to The Associated Press’ requests for information about McFarland’s criticism and provided updated rental aid figures after repeated requests for information from the Louisiana Housing Corporation went unanswered. Rather than respond to questions, agency spokeswoman Na’Tisha Natt said in an email that the housing corporation planned to release a statement later this week “about the status of the program.”

McFarland said he learned of the low number of payments as he looked for ways to steer more dollars to the rental assistance program in the Legislature’s current special session.

“But how do you put more money into something when you find out it’s got so much money sitting there unspent?” he said.

The lawmaker said the Edwards administration told him it’s working on ways to move money out more quickly.

When the program was announced, the housing corporation estimated the program would be able to serve about 10,000 tenants.

To be eligible, a person must have lost income because of COVID-19, be at risk of eviction and have income that is at or below 30% of the area median income. That’s $13,500 for a single-person household or $19,300 for a family of four. Anyone who receives other government housing assistance is ineligible.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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