2021 | Government

UPDATE: County distributing about $1 million a week in rental assistance

So far, $1.5 million out of $31.4 million has reached residents

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This story was updated at around 10:30 a.m. June 15, 2021, to update the link to the rental assistance portal. It was updated at around 12:40 p.m. June 15, 2021, to clarify criteria for applicants. 

The county’s rental assistance program has distributed a little more than $1.5 million out of $31.4 million that has come in from the federal government.

The county has received roughly 6,300 applications, Department of Health and Human Services officials said.

Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within DHHS, said in an interview that pre-pandemic, the county had an annual budget of about $4 million to help with rental assistance.

Federal, state and local assistance during the pandemic has been roughly $100 million, she added.

The Washington Post reported this month that Montgomery County had not distributed any of the $31.4 million as of May 5. Officials announced that round of funding in February, but said checks started going out to applicants in late May, arriving by June 1. 

Dr. Raymond Crowel, the director of DHHS, said during a news conference Monday that staff members currently can distribute about $1 million weekly out of the roughly $31.4 million in assistance. He and Harris said, however, are confident the county can increase that pace in the coming weeks.

About 75 DHHS employees are spending at least some of their time working on the rental assistance program, Crowel said.

U.S. Treasury and state guidelines state that 65% of the $31.4 million must be used by late September, Harris said. Because of the size and complexity of the program, simply adding staff members won’t speed up the application process for landlords and tenants, she said.

Harris and Ilana Branda, deputy chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness, said staff members must wait 10 days if they don’t hear from the landlord to distribute any potential relief. Most are responsive, but sometimes, case workers must wait those 10 days, she said. 

Along with rental assistance, County Council leadership and Crowel said many applicants are also dealing with other needs, including food assistance, child care costs and mental health services.

“It’s not as simple as one phone call,” Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said during a news briefing Monday. “We want to make sure these families get the holistic support that they need, so that we’re not just providing the financial assistance, but also trying to address those issues that cause the financial distress in the first place.”

Branda and Harris said there are multiple reasons why rental assistance money hasn’t been distributed more quickly since it was announced. 

Guidance from the U.S. Treasury and the state changed multiple times until it was finalized in mid-March, they said. Then, staff members had to finalize new software to make the application process more efficient and accessible than in previous rounds, they said. 

“We did want to take that extra time on the front end to get it right,” Harris said. 

So far, Harris said, rental assistance funds have helped more than 4,000 households during the pandemic.

Even with the current 6,300 applications this round and future potential funds coming, it’s difficult to predict whether the assistance will be enough for those in need, she added.

“That is the question of the day, that I don’t think anybody has the answer to,” Harris said.

Eligible tenants can receive up to $12,000 under the county’s rental assistance program. Those earning less than 30% of the median area income could receive more. 

To apply, residents must prove they have been financially impacted due to the coronavirus, owe at least $1,000 to their landlord, and have lived in Montgomery County since at least August of last year. 

Residents must show they have earned 50% or less than the area median income during the past 30 days. They do not need to prove citizenship or provide a Social Security number, but they must have:

  • Photo identification
  • Proof of residency
  • Income verification

Harris said residents can apply both for rent payments owed and also future payments, but must recertify through DHHS every 90 days. Crowel said Monday that tenants with informal leases can also apply.

“You can have a handshake agreement and need that kind of support,” he said.

With the state’s eviction moratorium ending at the end of the month, Crowel encouraged affected tenants to attend their court hearings. He added proof of applying for rental relief is simple.

Roughly $31 million of federal funding was announced in April. Since then, an additional $61 million from federal and state funds was announced.

People can apply for rental assistance at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/HHS-Program/SNHS/rent-relief.html or by calling 240-777-0311.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com