Alabama has spent $ 6.2 million to only pay $ 23.3 million in rent assistance so far

Michelle Cummings is a property manager in Huntsville who helps her tenants apply for emergency rental assistance to avoid eviction. Although she was successful in securing applications at offices in her area, many of her tenants who applied for public funds after the program launched in March are still waiting.

“I don’t think they have a good process in place,” Cummings said. “You’re under review, then when your case manager finally calls you, they need something else, and then you come back under review. “

The program to help those facing eviction in Alabama spent $ 6.2 million on a contractor who distributed only $ 23.3 million as of September 30.

That’s about the $ 263 million given to the state to distribute as evictions resume across Alabama. Federal money is intended to pay rent and utilities for tenants facing financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some advocates, tenants and landlords have alarmed the difficulties and delays.

Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based contractor, received a non-tender contract from the Alabama Housing Finance Authority to administer the program and distribute the money.

The delays come during a time of great financial anxiety for many Alabama tenants. About 42% of Alabama renters fear eviction by the end of the year, according to a review of federal census data by financial services group Lending Tree. It was the highest level of concern in the country.

Alabama is also lagging behind most of the country in getting help to those in need. Alabama is now classified 6th from last at national level as to the percentage of its emergency rental funds committed or spent as of Oct. 4, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Contractor’s invoices show that most of the $ 6.2 million was spent on the hours of people working on the program

Horne, the Mississippi contractor, charges Alabama $ 65 an hour for call center specialists and up to $ 200 an hour for case-processing staff.

Horne has only granted funds to 3,451 households in Alabama as of Sept. 30 and has approved an additional 6,784 payment requests, according to the State Department.

That’s out of 73,029 requests received since the start of the program on March 1. Among these, 44,263 applications were abandoned or not completed by the applicants and 1,087 were refused as ineligible.

On average, beneficiaries received assistance of $ 6,600.

Horne declined an interview request from AL.com indicating that the agency is not authorized to act as spokesperson for the program.

David Young, a multi-family administrator for the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, said the agency reviewed at least six emergency relief contractors before selecting Horne and the department had never contracted with the company before. .

Horne has demonstrated significant experience and specialty in this industry and was about to jump in quickly, and we are happy with their work, ”he said. Al.com.

Of those applying for the program, the majority are black women, according to demographics from the ministry’s quarterly housing assistance reports.

Young said the Treasury Department recently relaxed the requirements for applicants, a change that will allow the state to speed up distribution. He predicts that Alabama will distribute about $ 20 million per month through the end of the year.

“Each week the number of applications funded and the amount allocated to applications increase from the previous week,” he said.

“Yet we know that many face the very real possibility of eviction or disconnection from utilities due to the financial hardship caused by the pandemic,” Young said. “We are committed to providing this vital aid to eligible Alabamians as quickly as possible while adhering to the guidelines and requirements of the Treasury program.”

Some city and county level programs in Alabama were more successful in distributing allocated money to local offices, a total of $ 26 million. Mobile County has distributed nearly all of its emergency rental assistance, $ 12.7 million of the $ 14.5 million allocated in federal money, according to a spokesperson for the program. Jefferson County officials predict he distributed more than half of the initial $ 13.5 million.

“The statewide program is like talking to someone on Mars,” said Holly Ray, a Huntsville-based lawyer for Legal Services Alabama in a July 13 interview. At that time, the program took up to 60 days to notify clients if their requests were missing documents, she said.

Ray said it impacted his ability to reassure landlords who wanted to evict clients for not paying rent to wait while the money arrived.

But recently the program has shown signs of improvement, said Ray.

“They will allow us to expedite a case if the tenant is in court or has a court date,” she said Tuesday. “This was very important because we were able to stop some cases before they went to court and it prevents this tenant from having Scarlet E for eviction on their record.”

A moratorium on CDC evictions that had protected many tenants during the pandemic ended in August following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Eviction cases are now returning to court records statewide as some tenants await approval or payment for the emergency assistance program and others are unaware that it is an option.

According to Legal Services Alabama, its number of eviction cases has risen 400% since June, following the end of expanded unemployment benefits and the end of the moratorium on evictions.

Yet a study by the Urban Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank, found that more than half of renters and 40 percent of homeowners nationwide are unaware of the $ 46 billion in emergency rental assistance approved by Congress.

For most of those threatened with eviction, the process is difficult to go through without assistance. Nationally, only 3% of evicted tenants have access to a lawyer, compared to about 80% of landlords, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

After receiving funds from the state program, some tenants awaiting eviction waited weeks or months to receive their payments.

Keyaira Dukes, 24, was at risk of being evicted in July from her apartment in Birmingham. She and her partner have two children and a baby on the way.

They feared they would become homeless if his already approved rent assistance check did not arrive from the state before their court-pending eviction was finalized.

“The most stressful part for me is just trying to keep it all together and trying to keep a playful face in front of (my) kids,” she said in July.

Dukes received legal help from Legal Services Alabama and eventually got the money on time to pay her rent and avoid being evicted from her home.

Cummings, the Huntsville property manager, said one of his tenants received his approved funds just days before his eviction hearing.

“We went on and on and on,” she said. “Her hearing took place last Monday and she received this money the Friday before the deportation hearing. “

The slowness of the program is attracting the attention of state legislators.

“We are strangling these people. We’re actually strangling them, ”Alabama Senator Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said of the delays at a Sept. 29 meeting of the Legislative Oversight Committee.

Horne’s partner Anna Stroble told lawmakers complicated federal rules and the lack of a model or computer system for the program were challenges to overcome.

“We are very aware that we are the stewards of federal funds, and we must be good stewards of those federal funds. In this responsibility, we carry two competing masters, conformity and progress, ”she said.

Michael Forton, director of advocacy at Legal Services Alabama, said he was concerned that many people eligible for the money might be needlessly evicted because aid is denied.

“In most counties in Alabama,” he said, “the sheriff just shows up, while you’re at school, while you’re at work, and starts throwing your things in the house. street, on the sidewalk. All that stuff, all of those childhood memories, the photos, the family memories, they’re gone, ”he said.

Other states, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado and Texas, relied on Horne as a contractor to distribute their rent assistance. Several states have delays reported.

In Texas, a legislative committee published a report on the first Horne program failures in this state after only three payments were made in the first month. The state then expanded to use three providers for the program, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and is now one of the Dominant states in the distribution of emergency aid.

“Committee members are rightly concerned that aid to tens of thousands of Texans in need will not reach them,” the report said.

The committee said long wait times for appeals, onerous federal documentation requirements, and poor internet access for many applicants were hampering the process.

The US Treasury is now pushing speed. States that do not remit the money quickly will have their share clawed back and returned to other states, the agency said in August.

Dev Wakeley, political analyst for Alabama Arise, said in an interview Monday that he doesn’t think there has been a comprehensive response to concerns about Alabama’s program.

“It’s still an incredibly slow place,” he said, adding that he felt too much emphasis was placed on bureaucracy. He thinks the contract is too generous.

“They’re just making money here,” he said of Horne. “Billing is really through the roof.”

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