STATE'S COVID-19 HOUSING ASSISTANCE PROGRAM ONLY REACHES A FRACTION OF THOSE IN NEED.
Evan Wyloge, Colorado Springs Gazette
Colorado began providing emergency rental assistance to tenants, landlords and homeowners who have been impacted by coronavirus earlier this year, and by the end of September, has distributed millions of dollars, helping around 4,500 households cover housing costs.
But, compared to what the Census Bureau has estimated, based on an ongoing survey of households, Coloradans who have benefited from the state assistance amount to only a small slice of those who fear they won’t be able to afford their rent or mortgage payments.
Hundreds of thousands of renters in Colorado — between 20% and 25% in the most recent surveys — have either “no confidence” or only “slight confidence” that they would be able to cover their rent in upcoming months, according to the Census Bureau’s estimates.
Renters have been hit much harder than homeowners, according to the bureau’s survey, with between 4% and 7% of homeowners reporting “no confidence” or only “slight confidence” that they would be able to pay their mortgage.
And a greater portion of renters report being behind on payments and fearing eviction, with around 60,000 Colorado renters, or about one out of every 12 renting households, already behind on payments and worried about an eviction in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau.
Colorado has ramped up dispersal of housing assistance money, sending out more than $1 million in the last week of September, though the payments have been concentrated in urban areas. Scant help has gone to rural Colorado, with records showing one of the programs delivering nothing to the poorest parts of Colorado, where average household incomes are smallest.
But the Colorado Department of Local Affairs is already more than one-third of the way through an initial $30 million allocated for the housing programs. If the agency continues to provide the assistance at the same pace, the program could exhaust its funding by the end of November.
At the Vega Apartments in Northglenn, straddling Adams and Weld counties' border north of Denver, “most of our residents were financially affected by COVID,” said Brittney Ornelas, the apartment’s assistant community manager.
“We’re a multifamily community and we accept Section 8 vouchers,” Ornelas said. “Some of our residents work in the food industry, others work in retail, and we have some people on fixed incomes.”
The apartment’s management worked with several of the tenants, Ornelas said, on long-term payment arrangements or using deposits to cover rents.
“We were being flexible with them,” she said.
When she got an email from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver explaining the assistance programs, she began letting tenants know about it, and helped them get the paperwork submitted.
She said all but one of the tenants she worked with was able to qualify.
One resident got $8,000 of accumulated balances written off, once they were approved for the program.
“You have no idea — what it meant to have that kind of a financial burden and then to have it taken care of,” Ornelas said about the relief she saw for her tenants. “It was very emotional.”
The Census Bureau began surveying renters across the U.S. in late April, to gauge the strains put on Americans by the spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent economic closures and job losses.
Each week, they’ve asked thousands of Americans about pressure put on them and their family because of the coronavirus, from their employment, health and mental health to their children's education and their food and housing stability.
In the most recent surveys, around half of renters surveyed said someone in the household has lost employment income. Only about one-third of homeowners reported the same.
Since the Census Bureau began asking the question in mid-August, they’ve estimated between 18,000 and 34,000 Colorado homeowners are late on their mortgage and afraid they will be foreclosed on, even though there are about twice as many homeowners than renters in the state.
Hit hardest are Colorado’s Black and Hispanic renters, who are about twice as likely to report doubts about paying rent than white renters. And although homeowners reported the same doubts far less, twice as many Black and Hispanic homeowners reported being affected compared with their white neighbors.
The poorest and least educated renters in Colorado, those between the age of 25 and 39, as well as those with more than three people in the household, have also been hit harder than others, according to the Census Bureau's surveys.
Alison George, the director of the Division of Housing at the Department of Local Affairs, said it’s hard to know how many of those people already faced problems paying for their housing. More than 286,000 households were unsure about paying their August rent, up 100,000 from July, she said, but the same kind of data wasn’t captured before that.
“We don't know what the baseline was before the pandemic, how many people were living paycheck to paycheck and don't know how they were going to pay next month's rent,” she said.
The state’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program allows renters and homeowners to apply for funds to cover their rent or mortgage payments.
To qualify, renters or homeowners must attest that they have suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19, and their monthly income must be below certain thresholds (at or below 80% of the Area Median Income for the county of residence) and also factoring the size of the household. Applicants also cannot already be receiving rental assistance. Payments are then made directly to the landlord or the mortgage lender.
For landlords who want to pursue the assistance on behalf of their tenants, the Property Owners Preservation program allows them to apply directly, providing documentation showing renters’ coronavirus-related needs.
The Colorado Department of Local Affairs said it check applicants to prevent providing assistance twice to renters and landlords.
As of the third week of September, the agency had found two cases of “potential duplicates” in the two programs, out of about 3,000 total approved assistance recipients, the agency said. But the agency admits it’s possible that other potential duplicate applicants could have been flagged and prevented from going through.
The assistance programs have only helped a small fraction — between 2% and 5% — of the Coloradans reporting housing hardships, and if the program’s payouts keep on the same pace, they could run out in a matter of a couple months, after reaching somewhere around one-tenth of the households in need.
Alison George, the state housing director said housing aid initially flowed slowly, in part, because federal stimulus aid boosting unemployment payments helped homeowners and renters stay afloat. She said that after that aid expired in late July, the state saw requests for rental and mortgage assistance increase.
"We are starting to see an increase in people not being able to pay their rent because the federal assistance has gone away," she said. "It hasn't been as much of a cliff to date that we had anticipated, but now that the federal assistance stopped in July, that stimulus package, we are seeing those increases."
If the pace of the program’s use remains steady, George said, the current funding should last at least another month.
"I anticipate we will fully spend the dollars,” George said. “Based on our current expenditure I would expect that in November we will have expended all of the dollars."
Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a Denver-based nonprofit group, said she’s concerned that when these programs end, a wave of new evictions could begin.
She said the answer is likely another congressional stimulus package that gives direct assistance to people, like the $1,200 sent to most Americans earlier this year, as well as more money for rental assistance programs.