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Rent, Utility Help Slowed By 'Alarming' Red Tape, Inconsistency

Signs outside Mid Central Community Action
Eric Stock
Mid Central Community Action has helped process applications for rent and utility assistance through the CARES Act.

A federal program designed to help families keep up with rent and utilities during the pandemic has struggled to get the money out to the people who need it most.

Government officials in Bloomington-Normal say the problem doesn't seem to be as bad here, but they see why the program is tough for some to navigate.

A recent Washington Post story highlighted how much trouble the city of Decatur was having in getting out rental assistance money. The city got more than a $500,000 through the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development. The city spent less than 10% of the money in five months at a time when unemployment is high and many fear losing their homes once eviction moratoriums are lifted.

WGLT file photo
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis

The story caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville. Decatur is a part of his central Illinois district. Davis sent a letter to the federal agency seeking answers and called it an "alarming problem."

Davis said it's a case of government red tape with too many confusing and varying rules among coronavirus relief programs.

“What has happened is there’s inconsistency and that’s a major problem across government and not just with this program but with many programs and it’s been exacerbated because of COVID,” Davis said.

Davis asked HUD why 90% of CARES Act money given to the agency still hasn't made to the people who were supposed to get it.

Uncertainty over how to vet applicants for rental assistance has created a burden for hundreds of partner agencies that review applications and the local governments in charge of handing out the money.

Mercy Davison is the town planner in Normal. She has helped process applications for those seeking COVID-related rental help from the town since last summer. Davison said the town leaned on social service organizations in Bloomington-Normal to get the program started since there wasn't much direction from the federal government.

“There was just a lack of clarity as to what HUD would require of us, so we set up a program we thought was the most reasonable thing we can do,” Davison said. “Some applicants had trouble putting those documents together.”

Those documents could include things like pay stubs, tax returns, layoff notices, anything that helps prove COVID has caused a financial hardship.

Davison said HUD has provided better guidance over time to indicate how much documentation is needed. Still, Davison said about 250 people who started online applications for emergency funding from the town never finished them.

She said it's possible some found out they weren't eligible, or got money elsewhere, but she worries about those who gave up without getting help.

“I don’t know what happened, they just created their own account and then just stopped, never called us, which is always a shame because sometimes one simple phone call to us, we can usually tell people what they were missing,” Davison explained.

The city of Bloomington reports it has about 150 funding applications still in progress. The city’s communications and external affairs manager, Katherine Murphy, said it's hard to tell how many of those applications will ever get finished.

“It’s a mixed bag of everything,” Murphy said. “We have some that are incomplete, there are (some) waiting for documentation, some that are in final review and some that are waiting, say, for the landlord to register as a vendor with the city.”

Davison said the application process is manageable, but it can be tedious, and it can feel intrusive especially for people who have never had to seek aid before. That's become a new reality for many people during the pandemic, she said, adding she understands some rules are there for a reason to ensure the money is going to those who truly need it.

“You are giving out a lot of tax dollars and you do want to be good stewards of that, so there’s always going to be a certain amount of documentation that is needed,” Davison said. “For some people that’s always going to be just too much and for other people they can work it out.”

Davis said he hasn't received a response from HUD since sending his letter nearly two weeks ago. He said on some level, the agency needs to put more trust in people who are seeking the help and not assume they are trying to take advantage of the system.

“Frankly as we saw in the Washington Post story that lit the fuse under me to send letters, it’s those who are working, those who have been out there during the pandemic to try to do the right things that are affected most by this,” Davis said.

Bloomington and Normal have distributed nearly half of the HUD funding to landlords and utilities, but there's still nearly $500,000 left between the two communities. Normal has about $331,000 remaining and has distributed $226,000 in aid so far. Bloomington has spent about $130,000 and has about $140,000 left.

Eligible applicants can receive up to $5,000 each.

Davison said applications took longer to process at first, but now she said the town can get money out in a couple of weeks.

She stresses anyone who has questions or isn't comfortable using the online portal to come to town offices and staff will help them.

She said landlords also can apply to the state of Illinois' emergency rental payment program, even if their tenants have applied for help from the town. Payments will not be duplicated, Davison said, so she doesn't want this money to go to waste while some face the prospect of losing their home.

“It just makes me sad to think people will end up getting evicted and they could end up getting evicted for a variety of reasons, but if they get evicted and have a ton of debt handing over their heads, that’s so hard on people,” she said.

Davison said the town is still waiting to see how much money it will need to help renters come August when the state's eviction moratorium is lifted.

Mid Central Community Action of Bloomington helps review relief applications and make recommendations on who should receive funding. The agency denied WGLT's request for an interview for this story.

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