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Can Missouri Get Out Rental Assistance Fast Enough To Prevent Evictions?

"It makes me feel really alone in this world," said Christine Rudolph, a few days after being evicted from her home in Jefferson City. Missouri tenants facing eviction are unsure how to follow a stay-at-home order when they no longer have a home to go to.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri has more than $300 million available in federal housing relief assistance and another $270 million on the way.

But with the federal eviction moratorium set to expire July 31, can the state get this money out the door fast enough to keep Missourians in their homes?

Since Feb. 15, the state has put $17.4 million into the hands of nearly 3,500 families. That’s a significant jump from $3.6 million and about 700 families at the middle of May.

But it doesn’t match the pace of the need, where the state estimates 150,000 to 230,000 Missouri households are at risk of eviction.

“The assistance is closer to where we need it to be,” said Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for Empower Missouri. “But it’s not going to stave off the wave of evictions that’s coming. We need more mediation with landlords.”

Late last month, the state announced that it is investing more than $2 million in 13 organizations, many of whom will be able to step into this mediation role. They will also be able to walk people through the lengthy process to apply to the State Assistance for Housing Relief Program (SAFHR).

“There’s a lot of questions,” Maura Taylor, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, said of the application process for the federal funds. “Not only documentation, but there’s various paperwork that has to be signed and attested to.”

Yet because the application takes three to four weeks to process, these groups are on a tight deadline to help people stay in their homes before the moratorium ends.

Owsley is among housing advocates who believe the state entity in charge of administering the nearly $600 million in assistance — Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) — wasn’t given the resources it needed to handle the massive job in the beginning.

“There’s a real idea out there that we don’t need resources to distribute assistance to people, and that’s absolutely false,” Owsley said.

In January, Republican legislators told MHDC Director Kip Stetzler that the commission couldn’t use more than $7.8 million to build and administer a program capable of reviewing applications for rental assistance and dispersing the money.

Before the pandemic, the MHDC administered about $10 million a year, and that process didn’t involve reviewing individuals’ applications or dispersing money to landlords. The commission gave funding to organizations.

So essentially, MHDC had to build a program from scratch.

In the supplemental budget Missouri legislators approved in February, MHDC was allowed to take a 2.4 percent administrative cut from the first set of money — the $324 million Missouri received as part of the COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in December.The federal government allows the state to take up to 10 percent, or roughly $30 million in Missouri, to implement the task.

That’s how the commission has been operating since February.

However, according to the state budget approved by lawmakers in May and signed by Gov. Mike Parson last week, MHDC will now be allowed to spend up to 5 percent on administrative costs for the $324 million.

A MHDC spokesman said the commission cannot say if it will spend much more to ramp up the program. He did say that the commission will be contracting with more social service organizations, in addition to the 13, to help with outreach.

The goal is to “keep people in their homes,” a spokesman for the commission said, “and we work hard to efficiently use whatever resources are available to meet that goal.”

Dire urgency

Every month, the urgency becomes more dire to get rental and utility assistance into the hands of families impacted by the pandemic, Taylor said.

“There are so many households — nationwide of all income levels — that are one paycheck away or two paychecks away from not being able to pay their bills,” Taylor said. “We really need to focus on getting the word out for people to call because the assistance is available.”

The phones at Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, which serves 39 counties, are starting to ring — now that people are learning that the group can help navigate the SAFHR application.

The SAFHR program provides money for rent and utilities for up to 12 months going back to April 2020 and for up to three months in the future. The state sends this money directly to either the rental property owner or the utility company.

Due to federal requirements, a number of eligibility documents must be uploaded or provided. The typical application process takes approximately three to four weeks, according to MHDC.

Previously, people were largely on their own to go to the state’s website and navigate the process. Catholic Charities is among the groups who will be scheduling sit-down appointments with people to submit the application.

“If you’re doing that in person,” Taylor said, “it prevents the delay of sending information back and forth.”

Greene County, which received relief money directly from the federal government this spring, was one of the first counties to hold sit-down visits in March to ensure people got through the complicated process.

“We felt it was best to take an approach of having an expert who knew the program sit down and help applicants fill out the application, instead of asking them to learn about the program and fill it out online,” said Jeffrey Scott, budget director of Greene County.

The county has awarded $2.3 million, as of June 28, and the awards often go out the same week as the application interview, Scott said.

Both Taylor and Scott explained that many of the people who are applying for these funds are families who have never needed assistance before the pandemic.

“If they were furloughed or laid off for a short period of time, they’re behind,” Taylor said. “And it’s going to be difficult on their incomes to catch up. So if we can use this funding to provide rent arrears and keep them stably housed, then many of those households can get back on track.”

In order to prevent an eviction, Taylor also said it’s still very important for struggling tenants to fill out the CDC’s eviction protection declaration form and present it to their landlords.

Eviction mediations

Having an organization involved is helpful for another reason, Taylor said, and that is mediating between the landlords and the tenants.

The application requires a commitment and some information from the landlords to be successful.

“The nonprofits that are doing this work, they’re already trusted community partners in the communities,” she said. “They already are working with many of these landlords already and have relationships and may be able to help assist in streamlining that process.”

Elad Gross, a community outreach specialist with the St. Louis Mediation Project, said his voicemail is already full from people inquiring about getting help with the applications.

For the last several months, Gross and others have been volunteering their time with the project. But the partnership with the state will now allow them to get paid for their mediation work and hire more staff to help process the applications.

The rental assistance has been a big part in making mediations successful.

“It makes it much more likely that a landlord will come to an agreement with a tenant, that the tenant will be able to get caught up on everything that is owed,” said Gross, a former Democratic candidate for attorney general. “So it has served a huge purpose in housing stability, which was the idea behind all this in the first place.”

Rebecca Rivas is a reporter for the Missouri Independent, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Missouri Independentis part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com.

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry for the Missouri Independent.