Council approves more than $31M for coronavirus response

Council approves more than $31M to address needs from pandemic

Funds will cover rental assistance, health programs, grants, more

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The Montgomery County Council approved more than $31 million in local and federal funds for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Renters who haven’t been able to pay all or part of their rent because of financial impacts of COVID-19 will soon be seeing some aid from the county.

The Montgomery County Council has unanimously approved spending $20 million on rental assistance and eviction and homelessness prevention.

Maryland courts are beginning to reopen and there’s a possibility that renters behind on their rent might face eviction.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s April 3 orders halted residential evictions during the public health emergency. But the moratorium requires that renters prove that they can’t pay their rent because of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the council also approved a resolution to urge Hogan to extend his order until Jan. 31, 2021. The moratorium ends when the state of emergency ends or the order is rescinded or changed by a subsequent order.

The resolution requests that evictions be prohibited for tenants who can demonstrate a substantial loss of income resulting from COVID-19 or the state of emergency.

“Many people have been forced to work reduced hours or have been laid off,” Council Member Will Jawando said at the council’s meeting on Tuesday. “This has caused serious economic harm. … When [Hogan] declared the state of emergency back in March, no one dreamed that we were going to be — we didn’t know how long this was going to last. We did know that we were in for a long battle and that the damage both to the health, life, and safety, and economic vitality of our residents would be significant.”

In June, 15% of county renters were delinquent on part or all of their rent in June, according to a survey by the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The $20 million fund, which County Executive Marc Elrich requested, would come from federal grant funds and distributed by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

An average of $4,000 will be provided to each household with income up to 60% of the area median income. The grants must be used to pay past due rent and provide short-term rental assistance.

The council also unanimously approved spending nearly $5.6 million to respond to COVID-19 in the county’s Latino community through a new program, Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar (For Our Health and Wellbeing).

Hispanic residents have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In July, 73% of the positive coronavirus tests in the county were from Latino residents.

The program, which will be operated by the Latino Health Initiative and local nonprofits, will enhance testing, public education and resources for the Latino community.

Council Members Gabe Albornoz and Nancy Navarro, the council’s only Hispanic members, spearheaded the effort and proposal. Both have expressed disappointment that more focus hasn’t been placed on responding to the health crisis in the disproportionately affected Latino community.

Challenges for the residents have included language barriers, testing sites that aren’t in accessible locations and contact tracing.

The new program will provide a Spanish-language information and testing line and education forums. It will expand testing sites in Latino communities with Spanish-speaking employees.

Of the funds, roughly $4.6 million will be covered under federal grant money. The appropriation was reduced from about $7.5 million because contact tracing can be funded through FEMA reimbursements.

At the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Navarro said that although the initiative was a time-limited effort because of funding, she is committed to making sure the model continues.

“When we finally received the data that we had been asking for for a while, it just became really clear that a lot of the things that we had been worried about and had worked so hard to address, unfortunately, those efforts had not been enough,” she said.

Albornoz said the program’s success will be attributed to nonprofit partners with strong connections in the community.

“This is a perfect model, perfect public-private partnership to engage the key stakeholders that we have in our community — already have trust, already have a footprint and be able to carry programs forward,” he said, adding that staff members are looking at how the model can be used within the county’s Asian community.

Council Member Craig Rice said he and Jawando are looking at how to use the initiative as a guiding template in analyzing the county’s African American health programs centered around the community’s needs.

Council Member Hans Riemer said the county should have had a more aggressive approach earlier, but it’s “getting there” and the initiative is a key component.

“I think when we look back on this [COVID-19] crisis,” he said, “I think we’re going to say that not only should local governments have very aggressive testing and tracing programs in place right from the outset, but they should have very significant and targeted initiatives that are able to go deep into vulnerable communities and work with community partners.”

Additional funds that were approved by the council included $2.025 million for short-term assistance to distressed, affordable, older common ownership communities — primarily condominiums.

The funds would assist common ownership community associations with paying for critical needs such as utilities and essential maintenance. The costs are usually covered by monthly association fees, which have been affected by residents unable to pay them because of the pandemic.

Other money — $1.5 million — was approved to support operating expenses of the Montgomery County Conference Center in North Bethesda.

The conference center, which is jointly owned by the state and county, is managed by Marriott. Under the management agreement, the county is required to cover operating losses if the property doesn’t generate a profit.

It will be the first time the county will have to cover operating losses for the center. Usually, the center generates a profit of up to $1.9 million. The center is expected to return to normal operations in October if events aren’t canceled.

The county would issue payments quarterly or monthly, as needed. The center would repay them through revenues as they are earned.

Other funds that were approved in response to the coronavirus include:
● $431,707 to fund the Department of Police, Department of Corrections and the Sheriff’s Office for personal protective equipment, disinfecting of buildings and vehicles, laptops for remote work, and warehouse equipment and software for storing COVID-19 supplies. Of the funds, $252,318 will go to police, $106,950 will go to corrections and $72,439 will go to the Sheriff’s Office. The grant comes from the FY20 Bureau of Justice Assistance Byrne Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding.
● $395,000 to expand the county’s EveryMind hotline, which provides mental health support, information, resource referrals, crisis intervention, and suicide assessments through calls, texts and chat services
● $357,801 for personal protective equipment and related supplies for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service to respond to the COVID-19 health crisis through a federal grant.
● $355,00 for permanent supportive apartments for 14 veterans and unsheltered homeless adults in partnership with Bethesda Cares. Of the funds, $236,665 will come from the county’s general fund and $118,335 will come from a federal grant.
● $250,000 to provide mental health services to Montgomery County Public School students through the Department of Health and Human Services
● $200,000 to help Visit Montgomery market the county for local spending and attract tourists within three driving hours from October to December for economic recovery. Health regulations will be considered.

The county introduced additional appropriations that are scheduled for public hearings on Sept. 15:
● $1 million: $500,000 for supporting affordable youth sports leagues and activities through the Department of Recreation that would be targeted to underserved communities. Another $500,000 would be appropriated to the Office of Community Use of Public Facilities to be used for a Facility Fee Assistance Program to lower field and building fees for youth sports programs that primarily have vulnerable or low-income youth, are free to participants or charge a nominal fee.
● $550,000 for a grant program to increase the availability of youth sports programs for low-income and vulnerable youth in the county. Of the funds, $500,000 would be used for the grants and $50,000 would be used to administer the initiative to the Montgomery County Collaboration Council for Children, Youth and Families. The grants would be up to $15,000 apiece.
● $75,000 for Montgomery Moving Forward to support early care and education and set up a public-private coordinating body to build an equitable system of high quality early care and education in the county

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

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