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Tenants anxiously awaiting assistance when evictions resume

Six months after Congress approved spending tens to billions of dollars in bailout money for renters facing evictions, South Carolina was just about to reach its first tenants. They were all nine.

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Tenants anxiously awaiting assistance when evictions resume

It had $272 million to distribute, which is more than most states. It had only distributed just $36,000 in rent and utility payments by June. The pace has slowed, but South Carolina has still not distributed $15.5million in rent and utility payments since Aug. 20, which is about 6% of its total funds.

Sandy Gillis, executive Director of the Hilton Head Deep Well Project said that people are "struggling on the red tape". The project stopped referring tenants and began paying rent overdue through its private funds.

South Carolina's struggles are a perfect example of a program that was launched in the new year promising to solve the pandemic eviction crisis. However, many states fell prey to bureaucratic obstacles, political inertia, and unclear federal guidance.

After the Supreme Court blocked Biden's administration from enforcing the temporary ban put in place by the coronavirus epidemic, concerns over the slow pace grew. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, 3.5 million Americans were facing eviction within the next two-months.

Diane Yentel (CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition) stated in a statement that "the Supreme Court decision undermines historic attempts by Congress and the White House for housing stability during the pandemic."

"State and local governments work to improve programs for emergency rental assistance distribution to those in need, but it takes more time. The Supreme Court's decision will result in many renters, primarily people of color, losing homes before the assistance can reach them.

The Treasury Department said this week that just over $5.1 billion of the estimated $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance -- only 11% -- has been distributed by states and localities through July. This includes $3 billion that was distributed by June 30, and $1.5 billion that was released by May 31.

According to Treasury, nearly a million households were served. 70 places, including many states like Virginia and Texas have received at least half of their money. New York, which had not distributed any money through May, now has more than $156 millions.

According to the most recent data, 16 states had distributed less that 5%, and nine spent less than 3.3%. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition most states are red, with many difficult-to-reach rural residents. They include South Carolina and Alabama, Arizona and Arkansas, as well as Iowa, Indiana and Florida.

According to the group, there are many reasons behind the slow distribution. The group points out that the historical amount of money, which is more than the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, means that it took 450 localities to start programs. The fact that money is not sent directly to beneficiaries, such as the child tax credit, makes it difficult to get the money out.

Technology and staffing have been a problem for many states and localities. It is also difficult to reach tenants who don't have access to the internet or landlords who are not aware of the assistance available. Some applications are so complex that they make it difficult for potential applicants. Others have complicated income documentation or pandemic impact requirements.

Efforts to use coronavirus relief money for rental assistance last year faced similar challenges.

Emma Foley, research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, stated that "a lot of states are falling behind." "It is alarming that so many states have not distributed enough housing units.

South Carolina lawmakers waited until April to give the money to the state housing authority. This was because they were slow in implementing the program. It took several weeks to create the program. The first aid was not distributed until June.

Housing advocates also criticize the mountains of paperwork required and the long waiting times for tenants to determine if they are eligible.

Shaquarryah Fraiser applied for help in May. She is still waiting for confirmation on whether she will be able to pay back months of rent for her mobile home, which she rented in Sumter, South Carolina with her mother for $550 per month. Fraiser lost her mother to COVID-19 last May. The 29-year old was also sick with pneumonia and lost her job as a phone surveyor.

It will take a lot off my stress. Fraiser said that he won't be anxious about the possibility of receiving help.

There have been many finger-pointing incidents in Arizona due to delays.

Arizona's House Democrats blamed the state this month for delays in getting the money -- less than $7million of $900 million through July

Arizona's Department of Economic Security asserts that the federal money was not allocated to the state but to 13 other jurisdictions and blames the slow rollout on cities and counties.

In a reply to lawmakers, Michael Wisehart, the director of the department wrote that "We have offered assistance to overwhelmed jurisdictions with their workloads." "Regrettably no jurisdiction has chosen this partnership."

Despite this, Arizona landlords and non-profit housing organizations blamed a lot of the problem on the regulatory requirements that were tied to the money.

Mississippi has distributed $18.6 Million of its $200,000,000 through August 23. However, it has had difficulty reaching smaller landlords or renters. Many of these people live in rural areas and don't have access to the internet. The state also has no renter database, so it holds events across the state to meet potential applicants.

The Mississippi Home Corporation, the organization that runs the program sent a request to judges to deny evictions to anyone who has applied for assistance. It also informed landlords that they will not be eligible for any help if they decide to evict tenants after the moratorium ends. In 50 of its counties, the agency relaxed documentation requirements. However, the program will still require proof that income is earned and other documents from 32 counties.

Scott Spivey, executive Director of Mississippi Home Corporation, stated that "you're trying to walk the line of speed and diligence." "We're trying to ensure there is no fraud or waste, and that we only give assistance to those who are eligible."

In an effort to encourage local governments and states to improve the distribution of funds, the Treasury Department has modified its guidelines several times. The Biden administration has also asked states to create eviction diversion program s that aim to resolve disputes before they reach the courts.

Treasury issued additional guidance Wednesday to help speed up the process. This guidance includes allowing tenants, among other things, to self-assess and assess their income and risk of becoming homeless. Fearing fraud, many states and localities have put in place measures that can take weeks for applicants to be verified they are eligible for assistance.

Treasury also stated that money could be disbursed prior to funds being approved, as well as to tenants with outstanding rental debts in collection. This will make it easier for them find new housing.

"There is no doubt that we are seeing an excessive caution in getting out the money that doesn't seem to reflect the flexibility Treasury has provided or because we are facing a real public health and evacuation emergency," stated Gene Sperling who oversees the implementation of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue plan.

He stated that the new guidance "goes the extra mile to provide more clarity and encourage you to prioritize immediate relief over unnecessary and time-consuming paperwork."

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