As local governments scramble to blunt the impact of Nevada’s coming wave of evictions, unforeseen complications have slowed the process of getting millions of dollars in subsidies to landlords to compensate them for tenants’ inability to pay rent during the pandemic.
Statewide, more than $62 million has been allocated for the rental assistance programs that expire Dec. 31. Washoe County is having trouble getting the money to the landlords who need it. Clark County has stopped taking applications while it verifies the ones it is processing. Nevada’s rural housing authority is moving faster. It received about 2,100 applications. The agency approved 41% of them and so far has paid 305 landlords.
But in Washoe County, just one-in-four of the 2,059 tenants who received applications have returned them. As of Sept. 25, just 82 landlords had been paid, while hundreds of other applications are being verified. Statewide, there’s a backlog of applications being processed as workers struggle to obtain missing documents or vet information submitted by applicants.
Tenants must initiate the process and formally apply for the program. Their landlords are required to fill out accompanying paperwork. If approved, the money for back rent is paid directly to landlords on behalf of the tenants.
Tenants struggle with document requirements
Causes of delays, according to officials, include: cumbersome documentation requirements, a $600 per week unemployment subsidy that put some households above income thresholds, and reluctance by some nervous tenants and unwilling landlords to participate. Overall, though, creating an unprecedented, massive effort almost overnight caused the best of intentions to collide with unintended consequences once the program got rolling in July.
The City of Reno Housing Authority is in charge of distributing $8.9 million in rental assistance available through the federal COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) and other housing program money added by the cities of Reno and Sparks. By the end of September, the authority had sent out 2,059 application packets to tenants who requested them. About 1,500 of those have yet to make it back to the housing authority.
“At this point we have just a 25% success rate at getting people to mail this stuff back to us,” said Brent Boynton, community outreach coordinator at the housing authority. “We don’t have a good reason for that. When we have gone back in some cases and asked why (the application wasn’t returned), it may be that the person isn’t a Washoe County resident or that their loss of income wasn’t due to COVID.”
He said the agency can’t follow up on all the unreturned applications, so it’s unable to determine all the reasons for the low response rate. “I can’t say how much may be due to a failure of people to follow through, even though we’ve bent over backwards to get the applications back,” he said. “Unless we call them, we have no way of knowing what happened… We don’t know why the ball was dropped. I think we’re all surprised at that low percentage of the returned applications.”
Reno ramped up to handle processing
Boynton said the agency added workers to help process the applications. In addition to the 82 applicants who have been approved and paid, 26 other applications are close to completion and 406 others are in the process of being verified. So far, he said, 175 applicants have withdrawn their applications or were determined to be ineligible for benefits.
Incomplete applications are common, he said. “Those submissions are a frequent problem,” Boynton said. “In fact, we now send out every packet with a yellow cover sheet listing the forms that need to be returned. Still, some (of our) time is spent in phone calls, emails and even snail mail asking for missing forms.”
Despite the low rate of return of applications, there’s apparently widespread interest in the program. “We’ve had 21,000 hits from people checking out the program online, which is about 10 times the amount of application requests we ended up receiving,” he said. “We know there’s a need.”
Some landlords would rather evict tenants
Rita C. Greggio, supervising attorney at Washoe County Legal Services, said some tenants have difficulty meeting documentation requirements. Some landlords may prefer to get rid of certain tenants either because they have problems with them or because they want to raise rents.
“There is a portion of the application that must be filled out by landlords before the money can be paid out,” she said. “A lot of my clients have reported that their landlords were unwilling to fill this out and chose to try to evict them instead.”
Greggio said some tenants might give up if they can’t produce the needed documentation. “For example, if you’re a tenant who does everything in cash and Reno Housing Authority is suddenly asking for bank statements, you may get discouraged.” She said folks who may not have a written lease, or whose leases are expired may feel like they can’t provide the proper documentation.
“There are many other similar situations where someone may feel like they cannot provide the documentation required,” she said. “You’d be surprised at how many people have oral leases and think that their oral leases are not ‘valid’ because it’s not in writing. I don’t think that the housing authority has the capacity to assist and/or advise these folks,” Greggio wrote in an email to the Reno News & Review.
Program — and money — vanishes Dec. 31
The rental assistance program will expire at the end of the year; there’s a deadline on getting the money out to those who need it. State and local officials are reportedly discussing replacing the documentation requirements with a “self-attestation” form. That application, signed under penalty of perjury, would attest to an applicant’s need and qualifications. It would replace the standard CHAP requirements checklist, now used by the RHA and some other agencies, which is reproduced below:
CARES Act Housing Assistance Program Checklist
Extra $600 a week inflated tenants’ income
Another unforeseen problem for some tenants involves the now-expired $600 per week supplement to unemployment payments, available under the federal CARES Act. That extra cash pushed some tenants over the program’s income threshold. Some tenants made more money per week after the pandemic than they did prior to being laid off. The income requirements don’t take that temporary windfall into account.
Uncertainty about future income may also play a role in tenants’ attitudes about rental assistance.
Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said some tenants who are in continuing financial straits may be wary of the rental assistance program. “With the governor’s eviction moratorium in place until Oct. 15 and the (Centers for Disease Control) eviction moratorium that people can opt into if they qualify through Dec. 31, it’s hard to know what the next right move is,” she said. “If you apply now, but don’t know how you’ll pay the next month’s rent, does it make sense to start the process? I think so many people are in a wait and see (mode).”
Landlords waiting for compensation
Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said the Reno authority took some time to ramp up in order to process applications, but she said Washoe County is doing its job. “I think they’re getting through the applications as fast as they can,” she said. “We understand it’s a process and that (the agencies’) were inundated with applications.”
She said many factors may contribute to the lag time in completing or processing applications. Under the rules of the program, tenants have to initiate the process. Once they receive their application packets they may not have the means to supply the documentation required. “Not everybody has a scanner or a printer at home,” she said. “A number of our members are setting up work stations to assist tenants in getting those things done.”
Another complication will come into play once the state’s eviction moratorium ends on Oct. 15. If a tenant has applied for assistance, but the landlord hasn’t yet been notified, the tenant could be facing an eviction action while the application is in the approval process. “We’d like to be able to know which tenants are applying,” Vasquez said. “Obviously we don’t want to file a notice if (rental assistance) is pending.”
Rural program moves fast, pays landlords
The Nevada Rural Housing Authority has had better success in both getting applications returned, processed and in swiftly paying landlords. The agency has $5 million in CHAP program funds that can be distributed to qualified applicants in the state’s 15 rural counties. As of this month, NRHA has received 2,098 applications, accepted 858 as meeting the requirements and authorized payment to 305 landlords. That translates into $610,746 in payouts so far with an average of $2,395 per applicant.
Of the 2,098 applications, 423 were rejected as unqualified and 512 are classified as “removed,” meaning the applications lacked necessary information.
Those who apply for the program through the Reno Housing Authority receive application packets by regular mail. But the rural authority’s process lives online and applicants are connected with a caseworker once they apply.
“It’s a totally different process (than Washoe County),” said Katie Coleman, director of communications for the rural authority. “It’s all online with us. There are lots of ways to submit documentation, lots of ways to connect.”
She said the authority recently streamlined its documentation process. Workers will be reaching out to 112 applicants who lacked required paperwork to determine if they are eligible for the program. “Some of those people may have just given up because they couldn’t get the documentation together,” she said.
Money still available for 15 rural counties
Based on the number of applications still to be processed, the rural agency will spend more than $3.2 million of the $5 million available if all are approved. “We are encouraging anyone in the counties that we serve to apply as soon as possible,” Coleman said. “We want to spend that money and help as many people as we possibly can.”
The rural housing authority usually gets the money into the landlords’ accounts within two weeks. “We know people need this now so we’re moving as fast as we can,” Coleman said. “If a landlord thinks a tenant is going to apply, they can come to us for the landlord’s part of the paperwork. We want to make it as smooth as possible for both the tenant who applies and for the landlord who is going to get the payment.”
Clark County has $50 million in its CHAP coffers which potentially can assist as many as 15,000 households. The county, which initially had 14 non-profit agencies processing requests, ceased taking applications in mid-August after more than 25,000 tenants applied for assistance. As of Sept. 24, the county had 1,580 applications in progress and 1,224 either incomplete or pending review.