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Pulaski County shifting rent-aid effort to one run by state

by Tess Vrbin | October 13, 2021 at 6:58 a.m.

Pulaski County has stopped accepting rental assistance applications and will integrate its pandemic relief program for landlords and tenants into the one run by the Arkansas Department of Human Services by Nov. 1, county officials announced Tuesday.

The county has distributed 62% of its more than $10 million in federally allocated funds to 1,638 people so far, and the rest of the money will be distributed by the end of the month, officials said.

Applicants should receive letters "in the coming weeks" notifying them that their applications are being moved to the Department of Human Services, according to a Tuesday news release.

"This program was beyond anything we could have imagined in terms of the significant need," Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde said in a statement. "We ask for patience as we transition from the County [emergency rental assistance] program to DHS's rental assistance program."

Pulaski County received $11.7 million from the federal government this year and allocated 10% of the money for the costs of administering the program. As of Friday, almost $6.6 million had been distributed via 5,330 payments, according to data that county communications director Cozetta Jones provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Currently, 835 applications are being reviewed, 3,627 are ready to be reviewed and 1,312 have been denied, according to the data.

The county and the state use different software programs to accept and process applications, creating one of the "several logistical issues we need to work out" during the transition, Department of Human Services spokesman Gavin Lesnick said in an email.

"We understand the importance of doing this quickly, but we also know that it is important that it is a smooth transition," Lesnick said. "We will release a specific date when the state will begin processing applications from Pulaski County as soon as we have that information."

Jones said the county disabled the online application portal Oct. 6.

"We already knew we had too many in the queue versus how much money we had," Jones said. "That would have been completely unfair to continue to keep taking applications, knowing that someone who applied on Oct. 6 was probably not going to be seen."

The program -- meant to mitigate the hardships created by the covid-19 pandemic -- covers past-due rent dating to April 1, 2020. It also can cover missed utility payments and up to three months of future rent.

Applicants who have received an eviction notice, are unemployed or earn 50% or less of the area median income are the program's highest priorities, according to the Pulaski County website.

Arkansas' other two most-populous counties, Benton and Washington, also have their own rental assistance programs. Both have distributed most or all of the funds they received from the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act.

The Department of Human Services received $173 million for assistance to the state's remaining 72 counties. In September, the state faced pressure from Congress and tenants' advocates to loosen some of the application requirements after it had distributed only $7.2 million by the end of August and faced a backlog of more than 8,000 applications.

As of Tuesday, the state had distributed $18.2 million, Lesnick said.

"As of Oct. 7, we had 20,831 submitted applications," he said. "5,921 of those had been paid, 2,691 were denied, 7,638 were awaiting match or additional information, and 4,581 were in process."

The U.S. Treasury Department was allowed to take back and reallocate some states' unused funds if they had not distributed 65% of their shares by Sept. 30, but Jones said the county had not heard from the Treasury about that possibility.

The state initially required landlords to submit a matching rent-relief application for each tenant who applied. The program still accepts landlords' applications but began giving money to tenants without them Sept. 8. It also prioritizes tenants who have received eviction notices.

Fred Love, Pulaski County director of community services, said in September that the county's rent-relief program also distributes money if the landlord does not submit a matching application.

Some tenants said this did not match their experience with the county's program.

Neil Sealy, an organizer with Arkansas Renters United, said moving the program to the state's supervision might help those tenants who said their applications were rejected because their landlords did not participate.

"[The program] could be better; it adds to the load of DHS, but I think it might move more quickly," Sealy said.

Nichole McClinton, a Little Rock mother of two, said she applied for assistance June 28 and has not heard back from the county or been able to reach someone about the status of her application.

She said she found it "kind of ridiculous" that the county has exhausted its supply of rent-relief funds and is moving its remaining applications to the state program. Back rent and utility bills continue to accumulate the longer tenants have to wait for assistance, she said.

"Where I live, they're still trying to evict people regardless of whether you've applied for the program or not," McClinton said.

Ebonie Green also has not heard from the county about her application, which she sent July 29, she said. Her landlord has filed an eviction lawsuit against her, she said, and she is "actively looking" for a new place to live if she and her four children get evicted.

She said she hopes the state's program is more efficient than the county's at reaching people in need.

"If having the landlord submit a matching application would have helped me to get the money a little bit faster, that would have been nice to know when I first applied," Green said.

Print Headline: County shifting rent-aid effort to one run by state

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