2021 | Government

County officials face deadline for distributing rental assistance funds

County Council briefed Tuesday on status of funding

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Montgomery County faces a Sept. 30 deadline for spending at least 65% of the latest round of federal and state rental assistance funding. 

Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within the Department of Health and Human Services for the county, provided the latest statistics to County Council Members, as of Tuesday morning.

The county is currently distributing $31 million of federal rental assistance money received directly through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

As of Sept. 19, the county has distributed $20.6 million out of that pot, or roughly 66%.

But there also is another $28 million of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding that is being funneled through the state. Of that, $8 million, or about 29%, had been spent by the county, as of Sept. 19.

According to federal guidelines, 65% of the total amount, or $59 million, must be distributed by Sept. 30, or the county risks having to return the funds. The county has distributed $28.6 million in total funds, or about 48%.

Harris wrote in a text message Tuesday night that she and colleagues prioritized spending the direct federal aid first, because “not doing so posed the greater risk to potential funding loss.”

When asked if there were any issues with pass-through money from the state, Harris wrote that county officials reached a grant agreement with Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development a few weeks ago. That allowed the county to charge any eligible funds to state officials, she wrote.

“Other than that the state has been responsive and clear about their program guidelines,” Harris wrote.

During Tuesday’s briefing, County Council President Tom Hucker asked several questions about the current status of funding. Hucker asked how many applicants have been waiting more than a month to learn whether they would receive funds.

Harris said she didn’t have an exact number, but 50% of the cases have been closed out and another 30% are with a caseworker. As of Tuesday morning, the county had received 8,605 applications.

Council Member Will Jawando later said he heard there were closer to 15,000 total applications, but Harris responded that many of those were likely duplicates. 

Hucker also asked Tuesday if the county is considering following a model adopted by Baltimore County, where landlords “batch” applications involving multiple tenants to streamline the process. He added that the program has prevented more than 1,000 evictions. 

Hucker said many tenant advocates have called for an “eviction crisis team,” with a direct contact line with County Executive Marc Elrich’s office to troubleshoot problems with cases.

Harris and Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, said they had not heard of such a proposal, but they would research it. 

Landlords have always had a chance to “batch” applications, Harris added. And county officials have let them know of that option, she said.

“We are doing that. … It doesn’t look exactly the same as it does in Baltimore or Prince George’s [counties], but … we’re doing very similar work,” Harris said. 

Multiple council members said they’ve heard from several community members about frustrations with the process — including not knowing where an application is in the approval process.

“They’re not able to see the status of their applications, aside from just seeing quote unquote ‘processing,’” Council Member Evan Glass said.  “And I think that process needs to be improved, so that people know where they are in the queue.”

Crowel said he has asked his analytics team to look into that issue, along with the many variables that might affect each application. He added that that information might give county officials a better idea of an average waiting time for each application.

Harris added during Tuesday’s briefing that county officials have gotten a “blanket commitment” from multiple landlords to agree to write off 10% of arrears for tenants who applied, if the county pays them more than $12,000 to help in individual cases.

DHHS is expected to add six caseworkers to handle rental assistance cases by the end of the month to help with the growing caseload, Harris said. 

She said there are many ways that officials can improve their work in distributing rental relief money more quickly. Harris added, however, that supervisors are now overseeing dozens of caseworkers, and that the U.S. Department of the Treasury has changed, multiple times, guidance on how the funds can be used.

“They have changed their guidance six times, and I will also note that they don’t actually have a program guide,” Harris said. “They are only doing this through FAQs, which is highly unusual for a federal program.”

Hucker said Harris and her colleagues are scheduled to brief the County Council on Oct. 5 about rental assistance and eviction protection.

Rental assistance funds can be used to pay up to 12 months in back rent or up to three months of future rent.

To apply, residents must prove they have been financially affected 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.

They can apply 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