At the beginning of the pandemic, Tikisha Garrison lost her job as a freight analyst but continued to work her second job as a dispatcher for a commercial shredding company.
She dipped into her savings to keep making rent payments. But as the pandemic has dragged on, it has become harder to get the rent checks in on time, landing her two months behind on her rent and putting her at risk for eviction.
The federal eviction moratorium, which began March 27, 2020, was most recently extended to the end of July, but federal officials have indicated that this will be the last extension.
The single mother of three applied to the Rental Assistance for Mississippians program at her landlord’s recommendation, but over a month after submitting her application, she still has not heard back.
“I’m not the one to use public assistance, I always work. I never reach out for it,” Garrison said.
Her most recent experience shook her faith in the system. “And the one time I needed it, I got scammed.”
But what might feel like a racket to Garrison is really the bureaucratic backlog of an unprecedented amount of assistance being dispensed by a state agency with initially only five employees to distribute it.
By June 28, the Mississippi Home Corporation, the agency administering RAMP, had obligated just $3 million or 1.7% of its $186 million allotment from the December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill.
Two counties also received $7 million each, of which NBC News reported that Harrison County had paid out more than half, while Hinds County had just reached $500,000, or about 7%.
Other states are struggling too. Louisiana has obligated $8.8 million or 3.5% of its allotment as of June 22, and Alabama has obligated $1.5 million or 0.6% of its allotment as of May 31.
Mississippi Home Corporation Director Scott Spivey told Mississippi Today the large windfall of funding means that, unlike usual, a lack of resources isn’t the issue. Instead, administering the large pot of money is like “drinking from a firehose.”
In roughly the first 12 weeks since the program began accepting applications on March 29 of this year, just over 1,000 out of 5,518 completed RAMP applications had been approved for assistance as of June 25, with more than 17,000 applications started.
Spivey did say that the program is beginning to operate more quickly and is now approving about 100 applications a day.
The quasi-governmental Mississippi Home Corporation, created by the state Legislature in 1989, has had a difficult time administering the program because roughly 85% to 90% of applications contain some issue or error that requires manual clean-up or some additional documentation.
“We hoped we would be further along than this, quite frankly. We’ve had some delays with software. We’ve had two different changes in treasury regulations since we started the program, and those have been welcomed changes,” Spivey said. “They’ve kind of tried to make it easier for states to distribute money, but that still causes us to have to keep changing the way we do things. Especially at the beginning of the process, when you’re changing the process, that interrupts it.”
John Sullivan of Enterprise Community Partners, a national housing advocacy nonprofit, said the Mississippi program for rental assistance was not going well, but that these types of programs are not going particularly well anywhere across the country. National reporting has also highlighted these issues in California, Colorado, and Georgia.
As of Thursday, the CDC has extended the eviction moratorium by one month to July 31.
“All around the country what you’re seeing is all of these programs are very slow-moving,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s a key component as to why the Biden administration extended the eviction moratorium for another month — to give states a little more time to get this money on the ground so people don’t get evicted.
“I’m very glad they did that. It would be a shame to lift the eviction moratorium when there are millions of people around the country that haven’t been able to access the rental assistance, and there’s so much money out there. The assistance is there for them. The money is available for them. It’s just a matter of processing the applications, which is always going to be time-consuming.”
While the previous June 30 expiration date for the federal eviction ban heightened anxieties for renters who have not been able to get help from RAMP, the moratorium was never the airtight protection for renters who struggled to pay their monthly bills as some believed. Landlords have continued to file evictions throughout almost the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garrison’s landlord has not indicated that they will imminently file for eviction, but she knows of other people getting evicted after 2 months without payment. She has pulled money out of her 401k to be able to make payments if an eviction gets filed but is worried about what will happen to her credit score that she has worked to build.
“As a single mom, I can’t sleep at night not knowing what’s about to happen,” Garrison said.
Renee McClinton, a Southaven resident who also lost her second job due to the pandemic, has also not received any communication from the RAMP program two months after filing her application.
“After two months, you lose some type of hope … there’s no updates saying ‘we’ll get to you on this date’ or letting you know where you are on the list. There needs to be some type of changes on how they communicate with tenants,” McClinton said.
McClinton received a letter from her landlord that they were going to begin eviction proceedings on the same day that she submitted her RAMP application, but the paperwork had not been filed yet the last time she called the Justice Court.
Both McClinton and Garrison have called the RAMP office several times, repeatedly being told to just keep checking the application portal.
“I’m not looking for a handout, I just need some help,” McClinton said.
Spivey said the federal government does not allow rental assistance applicants to self-certify their income, meaning they must provide some documentation, such as tax returns, to prove they earn under the set threshold. Spivey said the frequent application issues, often stemming from the documentation requirements, have created a bottleneck for the five people tasked with processing applications for the Mississippi Home Corporation.
People who earn under 50% of the average median income are given priority, which means their applications are moved up the line. Spivey said they thought that prioritizing people earning under 50% would speed things up for people with the greatest need, but it has really just contributed to the bottleneck since a majority of the applications they are receiving are under that 50% threshold.
This element of the program structure has also meant that people who earned over 50% of the average median income kept getting pushed back to the end of the line, which Spivey said was the cause of the long wait times experienced by the tenants Mississippi Today spoke to.
Garrison said that while she appreciated they were working to make assistance available, she felt that the application didn’t fully consider other costs that affect her income, including her car note and how dependents affected her income.
Sullivan, who has experience working with federal disaster relief grants from Hurricane Katrina, emphasized the need for increased administrative processing power, into dozens of employees processing applications.
“It’s an extremely labor intensive process,” he said.
The Mississippi Home Corporation has recently set up a call center with 15 full-time employees and contracted with Balch & Bingham, providing 96 more people to process more applications, in an effort to address these issues.
It is also likely that more people need help from the RAMP program than have currently applied. Sullivan explained that having an online-only application can limit the number of people that apply, since many low-income people may not have regular internet access or be savvy with uploading the variety of documentation required.
The size of the rental shortfall was originally estimated, in a September 2020 report, to be $159M-$225M by January of 2021, but as the pandemic has continued, these numbers are more difficult to calculate.
“There are too many variables to come up with decent estimates at this point,” Sullivan said. “Many renters with back due rent have been formally and informally evicted, racked up huge credit card bills, used stimulus funds, borrowed money from family, cut back on other necessary expenses, etc and so it is hard to say what amount of back due rent exists now that could be paid by the program.”
Unlike the previous rental assistance program for which Mississippi received $18 million last summer, RAMP currently applies to a large swath of tenants with past due rent. For one, the program raised the eligible income limit from people earning 50% of the area’s median income to 80%. In Hinds County, families of four qualify if they earn under $56,700, instead of the previous $35,450.
Also unlike the previous $18 million, this funding does not require landlord participation in the process if it cannot be obtained. Previous funding required landlords to apply on behalf of tenants. While the current program does attempt to make the payment directly to the landlord/utility provider, if they are not willing to participate, funds can be given directly to tenants to pay their rent.
Jeremiah Smith of the 662 Tenants Union, which operates a tenant emergency support hotline, said that landlords have been largely uncooperative with RAMP applications, preferring to evict in a majority of cases he’s witnessed. He also said that around half of the people that call them trying to get rental assistance have not heard anything back yet from the RAMP program.
Of the applications that have been fully processed, RAMP has approved 83% of applicants for assistance.
The December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill said funds could be reclaimed if 65% of a state’s allotment had not been spent by the end of September 2o21, but further guidance from the treasury department indicated they would not be quick to utilize this power. Spivey said that the September 2021 spending deadline is not realistic.
The American Rescue Act, passed in March of 2021, set aside another $155 million for rental assistance in Mississippi, but this money has more lenient spending deadlines and will be available through 2025.
Spivey said renters who apply for the assistance and qualify for it will receive it — eventually.
“The government has done the right things so far in providing assistance to help renters and extending moratoriums so they can stay in their homes,” Sullivan said, “[We’re] really just hoping that landlords can be as patient as possible during this process, because the money will eventually flow out into communities, to landlords, and to renters. It’s just a matter of time.”
To apply for rental assistance through the RAMP program, 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.
-- Article credit to Julia James and Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today --