Analysis: La. Lease aid moves slowly as eviction ban ends

Analysis: La.  Lease aid moves slowly as eviction ban ends

“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.

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. 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.

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