2020 | Coronavirus

County has distributed, obligated more than $1.5M through rent relief program

Officials say problems reaching applicants slowed process

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Montgomery County residents had received more than $931,800 in rental relief from the county’s $20 million rental assistance and eviction prevention program, as of Thursday .

Officials told the County Council on Tuesday that problems have prevented the staff from distributing more than that.

Some landlords aren’t communicating with the county or are not willing to register in the county’s system, which the county needs to process checks. The program provides rent relief to residents by providing checks directly to landlords to cover rent.

“Unfortunately, not all landlords are willing partners. Some of them don’t want the tenants to pay because they actually want to be able to evict them,” Amanda Harris, chief of the county’s Services to End and Prevent Homelessness, said. “We’re having to work through that and figuring out, do we just give the money to the client? Can we give the money to the landlord without them registering in the system?”

The county also has trouble reaching some tenants.

“As you know, most of our staff are teleworking, so they’re not calling from a county line. They’re calling from a random number and people don’t answer random numbers,” Harris said.

Sometimes staff members need an applicant’s photo ID and rent ledger to complete a review of a request.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said the phone problem, having a county phone number appear, should be easy to fix.

Raymond Crowell, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told the council that there is a plan to get all of the funds for housing programs out the door.

The department’s primary challenge is to “balance speed with risks,” he said, because it’s federal money and the county doesn’t want to have to pay it back.

The data provided as of Thursday was the most recent information available on Tuesday.

As of Monday, the county had received 5,400 applications for rent relief, but only about 500 checks had been issued.

Of the 5,400 applicants, 94% are people of color, staff members told the council Tuesday.

Fifty percent of the applicants come from high-need neighborhoods, which represent 16% of the general population. Any applicants with an eviction notice or court date are being prioritized.

Once the funds are obligated in the program, the county has 90 days to provide the money.

Conditional award letters will be sent to 2,200 applicants next week.

Up to 30% of the applications have been denied or are likely to be denied, Harris said.

Of the denied applications, 13% are cases in which the tenant doesn’t owe any rent yet and isn’t eligible. Another 3% aren’t residents of the county , an additional 3% don’t have a COVID-19-related income loss, and another 8% don’t meet the rent burden threshold.

The rent burden threshold requires that residents be paying more than 50% of their income in rent. Officials are looking into dropping the threshold to 40%.

Navarro suggested that the county consider using the county’s general funds to help applicants who did not meet the eligibility requires of the program but still need rent relief.

The county needs another 2,000 applications by the end of November to ensure that all of the rent relief money can be spent before the end of the year. It is currently receiving about 100 applications a day.

The rent relief program isn’t the only fund having problems reaching residents.

The county is also issuing reopening grants for businesses and nonprofits through a $14 million fund. So far, $2.1 million has been spent or encumbered for more than 600 applicants.

More than 4,000 applications have been received so far. Of those, 2,500 have been selected for grants through four different lotteries.

Of the 2,500 accepted applications, 1,100 have provided documentation to the county to receive checks.

Jerome Fletcher, assistant chief administrative officer for the county, told the council that staff members are having trouble reaching applicants in the grant program.

“People haven’t responded. We’re making calls to people to try to get them on the phone,” he said.

As far as specific grants totaling $3 million for medical and dental clinics, the county has only recently found a community partner willing to administer the program. The council approved the grants in early July.

Council Member Craig Rice said the grants were urgent and a partner should have been found sooner.

“We have a fall surge [of COVID-19 cases] that is upon us right now. … We have got to get this money out to the physicians in these neighborhoods right now as we see these numbers spike,” he said.

Fletcher asked the council to not mistake a lack of speed as a lack of priority.

“This is one of multiple grant programs that we’re offering. One that we raised our hand on very early that we did not have the in-house capacity in order to administer it. Yes, it has taken us this long to get to the point of finding an administrator,” he said.

He adding that the plan is to get all of the money distributed before the end of the year.

Rice said that schedule is not quick enough for a COVID-19 spike the county is experiencing.

“What should have happened is in August, you should have come to us and said we’re still having problems getting an administrator,” he said.

Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, told the council that the county submitted a reimbursement request to FEMA on Saturday for $31.1 million.

Those funds include $28 million for protective equipment, $2 million for cleaning supplies and $1.1 million in contract labor for cleaning of county offices.

County officials have said they have been waiting on FEMA to act before distributing all of the $183 million it received through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.

Of the $134 million in special appropriations for the county’s COVID-19 response programs, nearly 60% has been spent or encumbered.

Roughly 37% — or $49 million – of the appropriations still needs to be spent, as of Thursday. Other remaining funds have been reallocated to other spending needs.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.