BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal cash to assist renters struggling with job losses and slashed paychecks because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the aid has been slow to reach tenants and landlords.
Across two federal relief packages from Congress, Louisiana is receiving $550 million to help tenants and landlords. Only about $50 million in rental and utility assistance has been paid out so far, according to data provided by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, which is in charge of administering much of the aid.
Getting the money out has a new urgency as the federal ban on evictions in place since September expired over the weekend, raising worries that thousands across Louisiana who fell behind on rent payments during the COVID-19 outbreak could soon be homeless without assistance.
“Welcome to my nightmare,” said Andreanecia Morris, president of the advocacy organization HousingLOUISIANA. “There’s no excuse for this. There’s no rationalization for this. It’s about helping people meet a basic need under the worst set of circumstances. And if you didn’t have the money, it would be one thing. But you do.”
Of Louisiana’s federal rental aid allocation, about $350 million is earmarked to programs overseen by the Louisiana Housing Corporation and the governor’s Division of Administration, with a contractor hired to manage the effort. The remaining dollars are going directly to the seven largest parishes — Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Lafayette, Orleans and St. Tammany — to run their own programs.
Rental assistance can go toward past-due rent and utility fees, along with some future rent payments. Information about the state-run program across 57 parishes is available at LAStateRent.com or by calling 877-459-6555. The other seven parishes have different websites and portals.
Through July 26, $17 million in rental and utility assistance had been paid through the state-administered program, according to the Louisiana Housing Corporation. Nearly 24,000 tenants started applications for the aid, but only 3,100 have been approved.
Across the seven parish-run programs, $33 million in aid was disbursed through July 23, according to data from the Edwards administration. Of more than 36,000 applications received by parishes, 7,400 have been approved.
Edwards, a Democrat, released a statement last week urging people who might be eligible to apply: “It is important that our residents know that there are resources available to them.”
Desiree Honoré Thomas, an assistant commissioner with the Division of Administration, believes many people were able to pay their rent with the boosted federal pandemic unemployment benefits that Edwards ended Saturday. She expects demand to now increase for rental aid.
But she also suggested the program has been difficult to administer because it’s managed through a federal agency that doesn’t traditionally run housing programs, with new sets of guidance released monthly.
Edwards administration officials said they’re working to advertise the assistance, with radio spots, outreach to landlord organizations and teams attending public community meetings, COVID-19 vaccination events and other gatherings to provide information. Workers at a call center are reaching out to people who started — but did not complete — applications for aid, to try to help them finish the submission.
“I think we’ve gotten into a rhythm of making it a lot easier. Certainly, I would want to see more money on the street today, and I think as you are watching the pandemic soar again, I do think you will see more utilization,” Thomas said.
Morris believes the governor should have done more personally to promote the assistance and fix problems when it became obvious money was moving too slowly. She said state and local officials have provided too little support to help people navigate the application. And she argues a bias against the poor, often minority communities that need rental help, is worsening the sluggish pace of aid.
“This isn’t complicated. But you have to believe at your core that this is important, not as rhetoric, not as platitude, not as pandering,” she said.
Edwards briefly enacted a state halt on eviction proceedings that expired in June 2020. The longer federal ban ended Saturday. Advocacy organizations urged Edwards to enact another state moratorium until the pace of rental assistance improved. But that didn’t happen.
Recent U.S. Census data showed more than 62,000 Louisiana residents expressing concern they could be evicted over the next two months and more than 97,000 households saying they were behind on rent payments.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
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