2021 | Government

Riemer, Jawando ask county to look into some rent relief cases

Officials said U.S. Treasury guidance changing has been problematic

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County Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando on Thursday called on county Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) officials to look at some rent relief cases where residents feel money isn’t being distributed quickly enough.

The County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development and Health and Human Service committees received an update from DHHS officials, along with employees from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, sheriff’s office and others involved in the rental relief process and upcoming evictions. 

Ilana Branda, deputy chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within DHHS, said that of this week the county has distributed about $7.7 million of the $59 million it received from the federal and state governments for rental assistance.

Of that, 65%, or about $38.35 million, must be distributed by late September, according to U.S. Treasury and state guidelines. The Washington Post reported in early June that none of that money had been distributed as of May 5. DHHS officials said Thursday that changing U.S. treasury department guidance, training additional staff and other factors led to the slow rollout.

At the committee meeting Thursday, Riemer and Jawando said they’ve heard from constituents who are having trouble getting assistance. Those residents believe they’re being asked for information that isn’t needed or are being asked for a lot of documentation in a quick period of time, they said. 

“We may need a little quality control, please, with the case worker group, to ensure [the requirements are] as you intend,” Riemer said.

Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness said in an interview on Thursday that case workers are still learning the requirements of the new federal program, and  added anyone with issues should contact DHHS officials, with the name of the case worker so they can resolve them more quickly.

Harris and DHHS Director Raymond Crowel said during Thursday’s meeting it’s important to keep in mind that those facing challenges with rent and similar issues will likely need help for long periods of time after the pandemic ends.

Crowel said federal funding that can be used for rent relief and other similar needs can be used through 2025. He added it’s also important to remember that of all the eviction notices that are filed in court, less than 10% actually result in evictions.

Capt. Robin Lewis of the county sheriff’s office shared statistics with the council committee Thursday that confirmed that statement:

  • As of July 13, there were 1,480 active writs for eviction cases
  • Of those, 368 writs have been scheduled for eviction hearings, which occur seven weeks after an initial notice
  • For fiscal years 2016 to 2020, 8% or less of all writs received resulted in evictions annually

In total, the county has received $119 million of rental assistance, serving about 12,600 households. That is allocated as:

  • $3 million which was already distributed in local funds, announced soon after the pandemic began in 2020
  • $20 million in federal funding from the CARES Act, which was announced soon after Congress passed that bill in late March. All of these funds have been distributed.
  • $3 million in assistance through community development block grants. Harris said in an interview Thursday that some, but not all, of this money has been distributed
  • $31 million in the first round of the federal Emergency Assistance Rental Program. This is the current tranche the county is drawing from.
  • $28 million in state funds for rental assistance. The county is also currently drawing from this.
  • $33 million in the second round of the Emergency Assistance Rental Program. Harris said Thursday the county is still waiting on these funds.

Regarding the rental assistance program, eligible tenants may receive up to $12,000. Those earning less than 30% of the median area income may receive more. 

Branda said during Thursday’s session those funds can be used for 12 months of unpaid rent or up to three months of future rent, depending on the case.

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. 

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