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Tenants Worried About Montana's Emergency Housing Assistance Backlog

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Montana Department of Commerce
More than 1,400 Montanans have applied to Montana's Emergency Housing Assistance Program. As of July 6, 2020, 278 applicants were approved.

It’s the start of the month, which means housing payments are due for many Montanans. Amid the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there doesn’t yet appear to be large spikes in evictions and foreclosures. But state officials are still having trouble distributing federal housing relief dollars to the people who need them.

Jenelle Rose started a cleaning business in October. The Missoula resident says it was going well, until the pandemic began.

Clients are starting to schedule cleaning appointments again.

But Rose still feels the consequences of losing her income in April and part of May. She has a mortgage and each new month has brought another bill to worry about.

“I’m already behind," Rose says. "I mean I’m just behind. I don’t get unemployment. I don’t get anything. So I’m scared.”

In May, Montana launched the Emergency Housing Assistance program, funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Economic Security, or CARES, Act. Part of the law provides rent and mortgage payments for people who lost their job or substantial income because of the coronavirus.

As of July 6, more than 1,400 Montanans have applied for the program, which can provide up to $2,000 per month based on income and housing costs. Two hundred seventy-eight applicants have been approved, while 296 have been rejected. Another 70 applications were withdrawn or found to be duplicates.

Rose submitted her paperwork June 5 and is among the hundreds of people who haven’t yet been approved or rejected. She says she’s emailed state employees several times per week, but hasn’t heard anything for most of June.

“It's just frustrating because no one will answer me and I don’t know why they won’t answer,” she says.

Deputy Budget Director Amy Sassano with the Governor’s Office acknowledged restlessness with emergency housing assistance during a recent legislative committee meeting.

“Emergency Housing Assistance program has probably been one of the more frustrating programs, I think, for the people administering the program who want to get that help out to Montana citizens," Sassano says.

The state has until Dec. 30 to spend federal CARES Act money. So far, Montanans have received $497,906 of the $50 million earmarked for housing assistance.

Amy Hall, a senior attorney with the Montana Legal Services Association, has heard from several applicants.

“You know, the whole purpose of this emergency housing assistance fund is to get money into the hands of housing providers or mortgage servicers so that folks don’t lose their homes. And that needs to happen quickly for it to be effective. So it is pretty discouraging," Hall says.

The state Department of Commerce, which is running the housing program, sourced about 40 employees from a handful of state agencies to review applications. Division Administrator Cheryl Cohen says many of them are working half-time on housing assistance paperwork in addition to their normal duties. She says another 15 temporary full-time workers are being trained for the job.

Cohen says gathering all the necessary information from applicants, landlords and mortgage servicers has led to the backlog in the program. Because the state sends relief payments directly to landlords and mortgage servicers, the application requires their contact information.

“A lot of the applications we’re receiving are incomplete and so it’s that initial back and forth that’s taking longer,” Cohen says.

But the bottleneck may also lie with landlords. Cohen says the state hasn’t heard from about 60 percent of those listed on relief applications.

"We really are just seeking landlords’ assistance to complete a W-9 so we can be able to make a payment to them on their renters’ behalf. So that’s probably one of our biggest challenges,” Cohen says.

Though still in effect for certain populations, Gov. Steve Bullock’s general eviction moratorium expired late May.

Cohen says her team is in touch with people who have received notice from landlords.

“We are seeing messages from applicants that they’re getting more anxious, their landlords are getting more anxious, and so that’s why we really want to prioritize getting these applications reviewed and approved quickly to prevent evictions from occurring," she says.

But Cohen says people are paying their rent at nearly the same rate this year as last year. State data also suggest unemployment is dropping and personal income is rising this quarter, thanks to federal benefits.

Libby Starling with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis says all of those data points indicate widespread evictions aren’t yet taking place. She’s surprised renters across the U.S. have mostly continued to pay their rent but says that might change when federal unemployment benefits providing $600 per week expire July 31.

“I think we’ll really start to see the effects of that in September, unless there’s federal action by then that extends the additional resources," Starling says.

Starling says there is currently concern in the mortgage market. Late mortgage payments more than doubled in Montana to 5.3 percent between January and May.

Unlike the 2008 housing crisis, however, Starling says lenders are currently getting creative to avoid foreclosures.

“Because foreclosure causes significant financial impact not just on the homeowner but on communities and the housing system overall," she says.

Starling says homeowners nationally and in Montana are temporarily postponing mortgage payments through forbearance.

That’s what Missoula resident Jenelle Rose did in late April for the home she shares with her son. But Rose says she still needs to pay insurance and property taxes through her mortgage.

She says she was denied federal unemployment and has had issues in an ongoing effort to navigate Montana’s system for the self-employed.

Rose is grateful for the housing assistance program but says she needs resolution on her pending application.

"I will lose my home eventually if I don’t get help. That's how serious it is," she says.

In the meantime, she continues to check her email inbox every day.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.