HELENA — While some of Montana’s unused emergency rental-assistance funds from federal COVID-19 relief bills may be directed elsewhere by the feds or the state, the program is still disbursing money and processing applications, state officials say.
The program also has had delays processing some applicants, but hopes to get through a backlog of 2,500 cases by the end of the year, says Cheryl Cohen, head of the state Housing Division in the Commerce Department.
“Our initial application processing was ranging between 12 and 14 (working) days, which we were feeling was pretty good,” Cohen told MTN News late last week. “It is, unfortunately, around 32 days now. … We know that it’s slowed down a little bit, so we’re doing a lot to try to increase that processing time.”
Another 3,300 applications are waiting for the renter or landlord to provide more information, Cohen says,
Kristina Redyoungman, a renter in Great Falls who’s been getting assistance through the program since last year, said she had to wait two months just to apply for “continued assistance” in late September and then wasn’t approved until last week.
“I don’t know what they did, but people are sitting four to five months, waiting,” she said.
Her landlord, Pat Goodover, also said the process had been working much more quickly in the past, but that he was willing to wait to keep what he considered good tenants.
“The end result is good; I know the money is there,” he said. “The problem isn’t the need – just the process.”
Cohen said new, expanded federal reporting requirements forced the state to redo its application system this summer for the rental assistance, which was contained in relief bills passed by Congress in March and last December. The state has spent about $25 million out of its $200 million share so far.
Until the redo, people already on the program had been getting re-approved quickly every three months, if they were eligible. But after the change this summer, those getting “continued assistance” were told they couldn’t reapply until Sept. 28, Cohen says.
Redyoungman was among those facing the delay, after which the new system still took two months to process her application. As of last week, she said her application still hadn’t completed the final approval step, which would send the money to her landlord.
Cohen says 1,500 applications for continued assistance came in after the September date, right as some of the processing staff left for other jobs. The state brought on four new staffers for the program in mid-November and two more last week, and is expanding its call-center capacity, she says.
“We have funds, we’re processing applications, people can definitely still apply,” she says.
Last month, the Biden administration said it may reallocate some of the rental-assistance money that states like Montana hadn’t used to other states, where the money had run out.
Gov. Greg Gianforte also has asked the federal government whether Montana can use some of its unused share of the money to address other housing needs in the state, but hasn’t said precisely what he has in mind.
Yet even if reallocations occur, Cohen says money for emergency rental assistance in Montana should be available until at least next September.
Montana has one of the highest amount of unused rental-assistance funds of any state. Cohen says Montana also has one of the lowest levels of rent debt in the nation.
“Our economy was not in a Covid lockdown as long as others, and we’ve had pretty good job growth,” she says, noting that only South Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont have lower rent debt.
Eligible Montana households can apply for emergency-rental assistance at a state Department of Commerce website, https://housing.mt.gov/Rental-Housing/Montana-Emergency-Rental-Assistance-Program. Household income cannot exceed 80 percent of the area median income. The website has a county-by-county calculator for the income eligibility level.