Utah Could Lose Federal Rent Relief Money For Not Getting It Into The Hands Of Those Who Need It
The following story was supported by funding from The draft report on economic difficulties and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah had to explain why it only put a fifth of the $ 150 million in federal emergency rental assistance it received in the hands of needy tenants before the fall deadline set by the US Department of the Treasury.
On November 15, the state was forced to send a âprogram improvement planâ to the Treasury to show how it intends to do a better job of disbursing aid. If it isn’t happy with Utah’s plan, the Treasury could potentially turn the tens of millions the state didn’t spend to another agency.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services, or DWS, which administers the program for the state, refused to release a copy of its plan to the Utah Investigative Journalism Project.
DWS has already announced a change. Next year, the state will stop contracting with tenant advocates, such as Salt Lake Community Action, to process requests for rental assistance.
âWe just want to streamline it, that’s really the only intention,â said Nate McDonald, deputy director of DWS. While the state initially contracted with several groups to help tenants collect and verify their eligibility documents, the agency intends to bring these tasks in-house in 2022.
Tim Funk, an affordable housing advocate at Crossroads Urban Center, is skeptical of the state’s decision, even given the shortcomings of some advocacy groups dealing with claims in a timely manner. He wonders what better ideas state bureaucrats will have compared to those who work directly with low-income Utahns.
“What makes the state believe that it has more inspiration than the [advocates] who are on the streets to help these people? Funk asks.
‘Make the right choices’
Like the other recipients of the $ 46 billion in emergency rent assistance authorized by Congress in late 2020, Utah was expected to have spent or allocated at least 65% of that funds for rent relief by September 30. DWS had only disbursed 22% of the $ 150. million he received before the deadline, according to a Treasury report.
Salt Lake City and the counties of Salt Lake, Davis and Utah also received their own funds to help tenants. Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County were successful in getting 100% of their tenant assistance, while Davis County provided 59%. Utah County only reached 22%. Including state and local governments, Utah as a whole has only distributed 39% of its total funds of $ 215 million to tenants.
When DWS received the funds, it initially contracted with various groups across the state to process the requests, such as the Uintah Basin Association of Governments and Salt Lake Community Action.
In total, those nine organizations received $ 5.3 million from state emergency rental assistance funds to process claims and McDonald said the results were mixed.
âYou have nine groups that interpret the rules and apply the procedures differently,â McDonald said. âSome do it very well and others there is a lag. “
DWS will need to hire additional staff to handle the additional work, but it already has a division ready to handle tenant inquiries.
âWe currently have a team that already does this for all owner inquiries,â he said.
DWS used a portion of its funds to provide $ 150 per rental assistance request that landlords submit on behalf of their tenants to compensate for the extra work. This work is different from the processing done by community action groups, as landlords are compensated only for helping tenants submit claims with the proper documents, but without checking or verifying the information.
As of November 28, DWS said it has paid 7,140 claims submitted by landlords and 13,276 claims submitted by tenants, largely with help from community groups.
Funk, whose nonprofit does not compete for state grants for emergency rental assistance, criticizes the inability of some advocacy groups to process claims quickly and believes a change can be justified. But he is surprised that the State wants to fully assume the role of disbursement.
âI know that with nonprofits, their employees will be staying late after work until they get that help for someone who needs their rent assistance,â Funk said.
Funk is concerned that the state is favoring landlords, citing how the DWS used nearly $ 200,000 in special federal rent assistance funds to pay landlord lawyers to cover eviction costs.
McDonald’s defends these expenses, saying focusing on homeowners is a necessity when it comes to distributing relief funds.
âIt’s as much about keeping people home as it is about keeping this industry thriving, so we have homes for people,â McDonald said.
“An ugly path”
Even before federal aid money reached state coffers, the rental industry immediately challenged funds going to nonprofits that help tenants.
On January 25, 2021, the head of the state’s powerful homeowners lobby group, The Utah Apartment Association, sent a defiant email to Jonathan Hardy, then director of housing and community development for DWS.
âIn my opinion, we are on the wrong track,â wrote Paul Smith, head of the Utah Apartment Association, in the email, which was also sent to a number of public and private sector stakeholders, including the powerful Republican state Sen. Kirk Cullimore Jr., and his father, both directors of the state’s leading eviction law firm.
âThe last thing we want to see is that the state is disproportionately funding tenant advocacy programs,â Smith warned, complaining that too much money was going to nonprofits that help tenants. to ask for funds instead of owners.
“If the owners cannot charge an administrative fee, we object to [Utah Community Action] get one, âSmith said, referring to funds meant to help tenants access rent assistance. He added that he had contacted the governor’s office about using a “third party Silicon Slopes like Test Utah” to take over the release of state funds.
Test Utah’s no-submission COVID-19 testing contract with a politically connected group that had no public health experience has cost millions and drawn strong criticism.
“I encourage you to refrain from entering into new contracts with [Community Action] until the governor has a chance to consider how more effective outsourcing this whole program to the private sector can be, âSmith wrote.
Hardy responded that his hands were tied by federal guidelines attached to the funds. Shortly after the exchange, Hardy resigned as Housing Manager when Gov. Spencer Cox took office.
From Smith’s email, DWS approved the administrative charge for the owners. These payments, as previously reported, have sometimes gone to the Cullimore law firm, even in cases where lawyers have sought help and subsequently evict tenants.
As part of DWS’s new plan starting next year, the state will stop funding tenant advocacy groups, but will continue to pay landlords $ 150 for each claim they help.
“They don’t want to just go to a website”
McDonald’s stressed that tenant advocacy groups will always have an opportunity to help tenants by working with other local government agencies – such as Salt Lake City and the county – that have received rental assistance funds. emergency.
Yet Deneen Adams of the Davis County advocacy group Open Doors is concerned the change could hamper the work of his organization. Processing rental assistance requests helped vulnerable Utah residents through the doors of the nonprofit and provided them with other essential services, such as access to her food bank and crisis nursery or tax preparation and financial literacy classes.
âThey don’t want to just go to a website,â Adams said. “They want to go talk to someone about what happened to them.”
While DWS previously spent all of its “housing stability funds” – some $ 183,000 – to pay for legal fees for homeowners filing evictions, according to McDonald’s, the agency will now pursue other uses recommended by the Treasury, including including housing advice.
The improvement plan recently submitted by DWS to the Treasury, however, did not expand funding for the housing stability program beyond covering homeowners’ legal bills, according to DWS spokeswoman Christina Davis. DWS is still considering different uses of these funds, Davis said, “with various partners, including agencies we worked with in 2021 on processing PLAR applications.”
The Treasury’s âProgram Improvement Planâ form identifies high-priority recommendations for housing stability service funds, including contracts with community-based organizations and non-profit organizations, serving âpopulations with a master’s degree. limited English âandâ legal assistance to tenants at risk of eviction â.
These areas were included in Salt Lake County spending on housing stability funds, unlike the state. These efforts were also among the factors in the county’s success in distributing 100% of its emergency rental assistance funding by the September 30 deadline.
The county is exploring the possibility of accessing some of the state’s unspent rent assistance funds, according to Lauren Littlefield, the county’s housing stability and recovery manager. Although she acknowledged that the county’s approach was different from the state’s – like spending its housing stability money to pay for the legal fees of tenants fighting evictions rather than landlord lawyers – Littlefield does not criticize DWS. Instead, she praised the state for spending over $ 500,000 to advertise the rent assistance program.
The county has also invested a large chunk of its $ 1.2 million housing stability funding in contracts with 23 tenant advocacy groups to help its various residents sign up for help.
âWe really wanted to make sure that aid got to vulnerable communities, so it made more sense to work with organizations that had existing relationships with those communities,â Littlefield said.
If you are undergoing an eviction, please consider visiting evictedinutah.com, this site can explain your rights and direct you to local legal and advocacy groups that can help you with your situation and help you find other resources.
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