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COVID-19 rental assistance program already short, set to end this month

‘Thousands of households’ may be affected, state official warns

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Salt Lake City ranks first in the U.S. for rent increases with rents averaging $816.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Funds available for Utahns who need help paying their rent due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are already running short and will be gone by the end of the year without action by Congress, affordable housing advocates were told Wednesday.

“We’re still accepting applications but we have right now currently more applications than we have funds for,” Jonathan Hardy, director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services housing and community development division, said during a virtual meeting of the Utah Housing Coalition.

So the state agency is hoping another $4.5 million can be found to keep the rental assistance program providing relief to both landlords and tenants going through the end of the year, on top of the $2.8 million that’s already been added by the state and Salt Lake County to the original allocation of $20 million in federal funds.

The shortfall is in funding aimed at helping compensate landlords for unpaid rent, Hardy said.

“The rental assistance is very well liked and people want to support it more,” he said.

But Hardy said the program is competing with others dependent on the $935 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for a share of what will end up being reallocated as the state attempts to avoid leaving any of the money unspent by the end of the year deadline. About a third of the funds have yet to be used.

The hope is that some of the requested funds could come from some $6 million set aside by the state for relief, so a special session is not needed. That would allow the program to stay afloat into the new year as Congress continues to debate a new relief package.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, are among a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to approve a $908 billion emergency coronavirus relief plan during the lame-duck session of Congress that would extend unemployment insurance, restart the Paycheck Protection Program and fund vaccine distribution.

Francisca Blanc, advocacy and outreach coordinator for the Utah Housing Coalition, advised those attending the meeting to lobby Romney as well as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to pass a new package before a long list of assistance programs expire even as the number of cases of the deadly virus continue to climb.

“We have hopes,” Blanc said.

Hardy suggested that may not happen until President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month.

“There’s a possibility that some federal action could happen, but likely not until the later part of January with the new administration,” he said. In addition to the federal funding disappearing, the current federal moratorium on evictions also ends this month.

Hardy later told the Deseret News there’s about $3 million available in state rental assistance programs, but they are more limited in who can seek help. Without an eviction moratorium, many Utahns will be in jeopardy if the federal program isn’t continued into the new year.

Just how many people could be hurt is not something Hardy says the agency has a handle on yet.

“There are probably thousands of households that are going to be scrambling to figure out what to do,” he said.