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Unspent Montana Emergency Housing Aid Redirected

A file photo of the Montana Capitol.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio
A file photo of the Montana Capitol.

A Montana state emergency housing program spent a bit over half of the federal coronavirus relief dollars it was given in 2020. State officials say more than $6 million is now being sent elsewhere.

During a House Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday, Montana Housing Administrator Cheryl Cohen said the state Department of Commerce is returning about $6.6 million from the Emergency Housing Assistance program to the governor’s budget office.

“We released a significant amount already, and are just working on some final reconciliation processes to send the remaining funds back," she said.

The state initially earmarked $15 million in federal CARES Act relief funds for the program, which launched in May to provide rent and mortgage payments for people who lost their job or substantial income because of the coronavirus.

Spokesperson Sam Offerdahl said the Department of Commerce couldn’t spend all the money because of low application numbers. Offerdahl said leftover housing funds were reallocated by the governor’s office this fall. When asked where the money was reallocated, Offerdahl directed YPR to the office of Gov. Greg Gianforte, who was sworn in earlier this week. A spokesperson for Gianforte didn’t respond by deadline.

During the committee meeting Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Mary Caferro of Helena asked Department of Commerce staff if the agency is adjusting the program to receive and send out housing assistance money from the latest federal COVID-19 relief package.

“The amount going for rental assistance, or earmarked, is much higher this time than $15 million. So do you have a plan to get more of that money out to the state?" she said.

Montana Housing Administrator Cheryl Cohen said last year her office had trouble collecting required contact information from applicants, landlords and mortgage servicers. She also said landlords were slow to respond to state outreach. YPR reported this summer the emergency housing program experienced a backlog in applications for the money.

Cohen said Tuesday the department gleaned lessons from the experience.

“We’re ready to provide our feedback on ways we can improve the program with these additional fund sources for the incoming commerce director," she said.