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Mississippi leaders scramble to get rental assistance into the right hands after a slow start

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The problem: Nearly half of Mississippians are at risk of eviction or foreclosure, according to U.S. Census data — the fifth highest percentage in America. “We are in a mass scale affordable housing crisis, a mass scale eviction crisis,” an NAACP organizer says.

The solution: Mississippi has received $200 million in federal rental assistance — grants intended to reach both tenants and landlords so renters can keep their homes and landlords can continue to have income.

The hang-up: The Mississippi Home Corporation, which administers the federal grant money, has operated very slowly and the federal government may take back money if it is not spent soon.

The accountability: Scott Spivey, director of the Mississippi Home Corporation, told Mississippi Today his organization has implemented several measures to speed up the process of doling out the rental assistance. But several community organizers across the state say more needs to be done.

Leaders managing Mississippi’s rental assistance program are working to more effectively get the federal money to tenants and landlords. (Photo credit: Julia James)

After a slow start that has been scrutinized nationally, the organization tasked with distributing federal rental assistance in Mississippi is scrambling to get the money into the hands of tenants and landlords before the federal government takes some of it back.

About 46% of Mississippians are at risk of eviction or foreclosure, according to Census data — the fifth highest rate in the nation. But Mississippi is middle-of-the-pack nationally in terms of getting federal rental assistance money out the door.

“We are in a crisis. We are in a mass scale affordable housing crisis, a mass scale eviction crisis — which disproportionately affects communities of color,” said Matthew Campbell, field organizer with the NAACP. “We have a rental assistance program to help alleviate some of that, but the funds have not reached people quick enough.”

The problem stands to most directly affect some of Mississippi’s most marginalized communities: To date, 80% of the applications for Mississippi’s rental assistance program have come from women and 86% of them from Black residents.

Eight months after payments were made to state and local governments across the country to run emergency rental assistance programs, the U.S. Treasury Department has laid out a plan to recoup funds if spending benchmarks haven’t been met.

Mississippi was at risk of having to send back large chunks of the federal rental assistance money — up to 10% of the total amount it received — if the state hadn’t spent at least 30% of their grant by Sept. 30.

Mississippi did not meet that benchmark, but the Treasury gave programs a grace period until Nov. 15 to get their spending up to speed. As of Oct. 10, Mississippi had obligated $43.6 million — about $7 million shy of the 30% benchmark.

The extension appears likely to save Mississippi from having to give any money back to the feds during this first round. However, the Treasury will be increasing the spending benchmarks by 5% each month, meaning Mississippi must continue working quickly to distribute the funds.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to try and keep as much money in Mississippi as we can to meet the benchmarks, stay within the guidance, and to keep this program going,” Scott Spivey, director of the Mississippi Home Corporation, told Mississippi Today.

The Home Corporation has made multiple adjustments since the slow beginning of the rental assistance program, Spivey said when pressed on what the state was doing. These changes include:

  • Boosting advertising across the state in efforts to inform renters and landlords about the program
  • Hosting in-person events intended at walking tenants through the difficult application process.
  • Changing the application process to allow individuals in 50 counties to apply without income documentation.

Spivey said that it takes 4-6 weeks from receiving a completed application to a payment being made, a wait time that they are trying to trim down. However, the “completed” there is a big caveat, because the majority of applications that they receive have issues or are missing information, which extends wait times even further.

READ MORE: Mississippi spent just 1.7% of rental assistance as anxiety heightened for renters

The Home Corporation has five full-time employees processing applications and contracted with Balch & Bingham, an Alabama-based law firm, for expanded processing power. That contract for $3.8 million, which has been the subject of scrutiny by the Washington Post and local community members, constitutes about 20% of the program’s total administrative budget.

While the Mississippi Home Corporation works to bolster its efforts, several community organizers who spoke with Mississippi Today say more needs to be done.

“It’s a pattern of delay, delay, delay, and ultimately late means never,” said Jeremiah Smith, an activist and organizer with the 662 Tenants Union.

Smith said communication issues with the rental assistance program have been an issue for the tenants he’s worked with, including being put on hold for multiple hours when calling the helpline. Tenants are also required to have an email address to apply for the program, which Smith said can be a barrier for many applicants; the Treasury does not require Home Corporation to collect email addresses from applicants.

Smith pointed out that while eliminating income documentation did help, the self-attestation forms (legally promising that you meet the program criteria) can still be logistically difficult to complete, limiting people’s ability to apply. The digital application includes three PDFs that must be printed out, completed, scanned, and re-uploaded, which can be difficult for older applicants or those with limited access to technology.

While self-attestation is required by the Treasury, Smith suggested making these forms native to the application and allowing them to be digitally signed, as is permitted in other parts of the application.

“If I was an individual renter, just trying to do it at home without assistance, I would have given up so long ago,” Smith said. “Especially if I was trying to do it on a cell phone. I would have assumed that the portal was broken or that I couldn’t understand it and I would have given up, which I think has happened to a lot of people.”

Campbell, who has hosted six rental assistance clinics through the NAACP, does not feel he has seen a properly robust field operation from the Home Corporation. He said community organizers in the state have stepped in to try and fill that gap, but he emphasized the need for more direct programming from the Home Corporation.

“A lot of people that we’ve encountered at our rental assistance clinics find the documentation and the readability/verbiage of the application difficult,” Campbell said. “We’ve found that direct, hands-on assistance assuages the difficulty of the process and reduces the number of incomplete applications.”

He is also concerned that the processing delays are hurting the program’s ability to attract more applicants.

“Some of the questions we’ve received at our rental assistance clinics are about the legitimacy of the program: ‘Is this program legitimate? Am I actually going to receive assistance?’” Campbell said. “One of the things I’m concerned about is that somebody who has applied for this program and it’s taking weeks for them to get processed — they might know somebody else who is in need of rental assistance, but because it’s taking so long for their friend to be processed, that other person won’t even bother to apply.”

The Home Corporation has received over 65,000 started applications and 25,386 submitted ones. Rivers Ormon, communications officer for the Home Corporation, acknowledged that this disparity is due, in part, to the online application being difficult for some people. She said the organization is working to decrease the size of the gap.

Pam Chatman, founder of Boss Lady Workforce Transportation, has also been helping tenants apply for assistance so that they can be processed faster and avoid application issues. Chatman partnered with the Home Corporation to host a rental assistance fair on August 11 in Cleveland, with almost 500 people in attendance.

Chatman thinks that the Home Corporation is working towards the mark, but that continuing to advertise and market the program should be a major goal.

“I have gotten several hundreds of phone calls of tears and crying and shouting, just overwhelmed that it has all been processed and their rent has been paid through 2022,” Chatman said. “We know that the program works, we know that it is successful, and we’re just trying to do our part to assist those families that are in dire need and make sure their application has been filled out correctly.”

Note: To apply for rental assistance, visit ms-ramp.com. If you live in Harrison County, you may also contact the Open Doors Homeless Coalition at 228-604-8011. For rental assistance in Hinds County, visit hindsrentalaid.com or call 601-514-0137.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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