The Connecticut Department of Housing is once again accepting applications for a program that offers up to $4,000 in rental assistance to individuals who have suffered economically from the effects of the coronavirus.
Yet advocates and housing counselors are concerned that the available funding will not be enough to match either the number of people in need of assistance or the amount of debt that individual tenants find themselves facing.
The program, known officially as the Temporary Rental and Housing Assistance Program, began in mid-July, but was shut down six weeks later after being overwhelmed with applications.
The program reopened on October 26, with changes intended to fix difficulties the program encountered when first introduced.
In the interim, Gov. Ned Lamont allocated an additional $20 million in CARES Act funding to the program, bringing the program’s total funding to $40 million.
Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a non-profit that provides legal assistance to renters and homeowners at risk of eviction and foreclosure, said that the need for rental assistance has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.
Since March 1 of this year, she said 326 people have called her organization to ask about rent help or preventing eviction. In that same period last year, she said, she received just three calls.
Bridgette Russell, managing director of the HomeOwnership Center in New Haven, which provides housing counseling, said that she has received 370 referrals for the program since it was launched, including 200 in the last two weeks. The vast majority, she said, were from people she believed were eligible.
Under the program, individuals who are struggling to pay rent because of a COVID-related issue — such as a job loss, having to stay home with a child once the schools closed, getting sick with the virus, or a delay in benefits payments — can apply for the assistance.
The money can be applied to any rent owed between March 1, 2020 and March 1, 2021, with a limit of $1,000 per month. Each month, tenants are required to pay 30 percent of their lowest gross income amount received in March, April or May of this year.
Russell said requests for rental assistance have come from people of all different ages and ethnicities.
“I’ve definitely talked to people who are elderly, 20s 30s 40s,” she said. “It has hit the great swath of people who rent across the state.”
Elizabeth Horton Scheff, director of community services at the Community Renewal Team in Hartford, said she’s most concerned about people who have jobs that may be impacted indefinitely by the pandemic — like restaurant workers, day care workers, bus drivers and hotel staff.
All the advocates and counselors say that $4,000 will not be enough to keep many of these individuals afloat through the pandemic.
“I wish the maximum amount could possibly change to assist people over a longer haul,” said Russell. She added that people who needed to continue making monthly rental payments while also needing to pay back rent would need more help over a longer period of time than this program offers.
Data from the Partnership for Strong Communities shows that the median monthly rent in Connecticut is $1,156, and 63 percent of housing units in the state have a gross monthly rent of more than $1,000. That’s without late fees or utility payments, which the rental assistance program will not cover.
Scheff, however, said she is concerned that if the government gave more money to individuals, it would reduce the number of individuals the program could help in total.
“I would like to see everybody have their entire arrearage erased, but in some cases, that’s upwards of eight, nine, 10 thousand dollars,” she said.
Streamlining the Process
Since the program’s launch in July, the Department of Housing has streamlined the application process, allowing people to apply online rather than having to call into a call-center and hiring 40 more Department of Housing employees to process the forms.
Elizabeth Horton Scheff, Director of Community Services at the Community Renewal Team in Hartford, said that the modifications have improved the process tremendously.
“Since the state repackaged the program, it has been much easier and swifter to get documents out to customers, out to landlords and back,” she said.
Kemple said that she still thinks the documentation requirements of the program are too onerous. In order to qualify, the state requires that tenants submit their income from 2019, their income in the first 4-5 months since March of 2020, and the way in which the coronavirus has impacted their ability to pay the rent.
Kemple said she thinks that including the 2019 income levels can be misleading; instead, her organization suggests that the Department of Housing do an asset test that capped the amount of money an applicant could have in the bank at $5,000.
Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said they were constantly thinking about ways to make the program better.
“Every week we are reviewing the information, looking at ways to improve, looking at ways to respond,” said Mosquera-Bruno.
Sheff disagrees that the requirements are too difficult to meet. A larger problem for her clients, she said, is that many of them don’t have access to the technology they need to complete the forms. She added that she also has had a lot of referrals who simply don’t hand in the necessary information.
“I think the state has gone above and beyond to make it an easy process for folks,” said Sheff. “Now it’s up to people to respond.”