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New Hanover's rental assistance program has been very effective but, for some, housing uncertainty remains

A protester holds up an eviction-related sign in Washington, D.C. The coronavirus rescue package just passed in Congress sets aside $25 billion for rental assistance and extends a CDC order aimed at preventing evictions.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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AP/NPR
A protester holds up an eviction-related sign in Washington, D.C. The coronavirus rescue package passed late last year set aside $25 billion for rental assistance and extends a CDC order aimed at preventing evictions- and a later bill added billions more.

The federal eviction moratorium is still in effect for the majority of North Carolina counties, but that could change as the pandemic gets under control. In the meantime, county and state programs are racing to help tenants make up lost rental payments, so they don’t get evicted once the moratorium ends. 

The lobby of the HelpHub at Harrelson Center is usually full, but last Wednesday morning it was just a steady trickle: men and women, people of all races, coming to ask for a bit of help to get through the pandemic.

HelpHub is there to get citizens connected with resources, and that morning the primary program on offer was rental assistance.

Tamika Shipman, a mother of three, came to get a bit of help with rent — just $200 would do it, she said. She lost out on work because of Covid-19. Normally, she’d clean houses for a living, but with the recent spike in cases she’s afraid to contract the disease and bring it back to her three kids.

“I didn't know where I was going to get the money,” she said. “And me and my children would have been homeless or close to it.”

She’s not the only one. An estimated 210,000 people are behind on rent and utilities across North Carolina. The federal government has given the state $546 million to help cover rent and utilities that have gone unpaid because of the pandemic.

The majority of that money went to the HOPE program, which administers the payments for 88 counties. New Hanover County manages its own program, as do 11 other counties that house larger cities across the state.

Both programs are doing a significantly better job of getting money into the hands of those who need it than other programs across the country.

HOPE vs. Local Programs

Across the country, just 6% of the federal dollars allocated to rent relief in March had made it into the hands of renters by the beginning of August. but New Hanover County has managed to spend every dime of its $7.1-million allocation. The HOPE program, which serves Pender and Brunswick counties, has managed to award 53% of its $389 million in funding — though only $120 million has been officially paid out.

Laura Hogshead, Director of the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency (which administers the program), said the goal of HOPE is to keep people safe in their homes during the pandemic.

“We are helping them pay back rent and forward rent as well as utility arrearages in order to extend their time in their current rental unit, so that we can stop the spread of Covid,” Hogshead said. “The eligibility requirements are that you live in one of the 88 counties that the HOPE program serves, you are at 80% of area median income or below, you are a renter, and you have had a financial impact from Covid.”

HOPE has awarded rental and utility assistance to 55,000 families, just over a quarter of the estimated total families in need. Each family gets an average of 3 and a half months of rent, or $3,600. In Pender and Brunswick Counties, 534 families have received help from HOPE.

"It is very rewarding work, knowing that we are allowing families not to have to worry about being homeless during the time of a pandemic.”
Tonya Jackson, Director of the New Hanover County Department of Social Services

New Hanover, meanwhile, has had to shut down its applications for rental assistance because it already gave away the full $7.1 million it received to help more than 2,000 renter households. It may receive up to $20.9 million more from state allotments, with $2 million coming in at a time.

Tonya Jackson heads the county program as the director of the New Hanover County Department of Social Services.

“It is very rewarding work because we know that in New Hanover County, we do face some issues with affordable housing,” she said. "It is very rewarding work, knowing that we are allowing families not to have to worry about being homeless during the time of a pandemic.”

How New Hanover's program succeeded, and what uncertainty remains

But why was New Hanover County so much more efficient at helping needy families than other programs across the country- and more efficient than HOPE?

“I'm going to attribute our success in the program with first of all our timing with planning,” Jackson said. “We didn't actually start service delivery until March the 28th. We took our time to make sure that we had a good solid foundation for the program in place.”

Jackson said it also has to do with informing the needy of the program; the county worked hard to get the message out, both in the media and through more creative strategies.

There are also a lot of different ways to apply, meaning the application is accessible to all kinds of people. Instead of forcing all applicants to go through a web portal, the county allows applications by phone call or on paper.

Still, Jackson thinks there are a lot more people who need help out there, and it’s key to get it to them soon. The national eviction moratorium expired at the end of July, but was brought back under a new set of rules that are dependent on a county’s level of Covid spread.

Isaac Sturgill, an attorney with NC Legal Aid, says the eviction moratorium isn’t automatic either — it requires a tenant to be trying their hardest to make rent, with a threat of homelessness if they do end up evicted.

“It's not automatic. tenants have to sign a form, it’s called a declaration form — it's available on the CDC website,” Sturgill explained. “They have to sign that form, promising that they meet all five of these criteria and then they have to deliver the form to their landlord in order to get protection under this moratorium.”

Areas that have less-than-substantial spread of Covid-19 for a period of two weeks will lapse from the moratorium. New Hanover County is currently covered, but the fluctuating circumstances make it difficult to keep tenants informed.

That kind of thing makes Tamika Shipman nervous — her friend just got evicted last week.

“They are still evicting these people,” she exclaimed.

While her friend wasn’t able to escape eviction, she found out about the rental assistance program from a man promoting it at eviction court — that's another part of New Hanover County’s outreach program.

At risk of falling through the cracks

Still, the program doesn’t reach everybody, nor does the moratorium. Some tenants don’t have leases, or have informal arrangements with friends or family. When those tenants lose their housing, they don’t have much recourse.

Like Max Keyes, who came into the HelpHub at Harrelson Center on Wednesday morning.

“I'm asking for basically half a month or two weeks rent, so I can get out of a tent in this high heat, humidity, but more importantly, I can't use my C pap machine. And I really notice the difference. I don't have a generator where I sleep in the tent.”
Max Keyes, applicant to the rental relief program

“I find myself unexpectedly unplanned for the need for security deposit, potentially utilities, security deposit, things like that,” he said. “And these ladies, or the people here, are unbelievably helpful.”

Keyes said he was living with another tenant who decided to break his lease, which left him without housing, despite the eviction moratorium. But the rental assistance program isn’t designed to help people get into homes- it’s designed to keep people where they already are living.

“I'm asking for basically half a month or two weeks rent,” Keyes explained, eyes downcast. “So I can get out of a tent in this high heat, humidity, but more importantly, I can't use my C pap machine. And I really notice the difference. I don't have a generator where I sleep in the tent.”

Keyes doesn’t have the lease needed to get financial help with paying rent- even though he has a landlord willing to rent to him once he gets a deposit.

“If I have it on paper, they can help me. To get it on paper, I have to have something from them first, but they can't,” he said. “It’s a Catch-22.”

HelpHub can direct clients like Keyes to other resources if the rental assistance program won’t work for him. He’s very grateful to the workers there, and calls them “rockstars'' for their efforts.

It’s a challenge, but the rental assistance program does have a chance of helping homeless tenants into housing. The tenant has to get their prospective landlord to sign a letter of agreement promising to house them before they can get any money for a security deposit.

The Hope Program, on the other hand, doesn’t provide help with a security deposit, and neither program can help someone get access to a hotel room or similarly temporary lodgings.

Still, the financial assistance from both programs gets paid directly to the landlord, not to the tenant. So there’s little risk of fraud: the landlord who signs that letter will get paid.

Once a landlord rents to that tenant, they can get up to three months of rental payments in advance through the program.

Keyes said he hopes he can pull it all together so he can get out of his tent and into a home.

“The guy wants to rent to you, and they want to help you get in there,” Keyes said of the HelpHub, “But nobody's better at solving it if it's solvable.”

Keyes was able to find a landlord who might be willing to sign such a letter. And for tenants who struggle to make ends meet, housing should be secure with a lease thanks to the moratorium- so long the pandemic still rages. And as long as they know to go to the CDC website to get a declaration form sent off to their landlords.

For other tenants who are behind on rent, it’s not too late to get help.

With the lengthened moratorium, tenants have more time to get squared up with their landlords — if they get the paperwork submitted in time. To apply for rental assistance in Pender or Brunswick counties, go to rebuild.nc.gov, or call 888-927-5467.