Montgomery County expects the state to provide about $20 million less in rental assistance funds than in a previous round, meaning fewer families will be able to get help paying their rent in the coming months.
Amanda Harris, chief of services to end and prevent homelessness within the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the previous round of funding consisted of $28.1 million that is just state money and $60.4 million total from the state and federal government.
During the past several months, county officials have received multiple rounds of rental assistance funds from Maryland and the federal government. The money is meant to help low-income families who are suffering financially from the coronavirus pandemic pay their rent.
The county’s Department of Health and Human Services has not announced the next round of rental assistance funding, but Harris told the County Council Tuesday that the total amount for the next round will be $41 million, $6.5 million of which is coming from the state.
Harris and Ilana Branda, assistant chief of services to end and prevent homelessness, told council members that DHHS officials have had difficulty understanding the state’s rationale for decreasing funding. They said that about 2,000 fewer households, or roughly 6,000 residents, won’t be able to receive assistance because of the state’s decrease in funding.
Sara Luell, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said in a brief interview Tuesday that the U.S. Treasury was trying to “rightsize” the amount given in the current round of funding, versus the previous round.
In the last round, Montgomery County received a total of 16.5% of all the funds given to Maryland jurisdictions, whether directly through the federal government or in state assistance, Luell said.
She added that this round, even though the state is giving less money, Montgomery County has gotten 17.1% of the total funds given to the state of Maryland, whether that money was sent directly to local jurisdictions or state officials. Luell said it’s possible the Department of Housing and Community Affairs could use reserves to give more money in the future.
Harris and Branda said they recently met with Kenneth Holt, the secretary of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, to discuss the state’s decision.
Branda said the state might have given the county less money because the U.S. Treasury — which is distributing the federal money — decided to give $9 million in federal dollars to Montgomery County as a “bonus,” based on high-need communities.
“What we have been trying to express to them is … we have the highest rents in the state, we have the [highest] number of renters, and we have the [highest] number of cost-burdened renters,” Branda said. “So, it’s not comparing apples and apples to just do a fixed percentage.”
County Council Vice President Evan Glass said he was finalizing a letter in which the council urged state officials to reconsider their decision. He noted that more than 70% of the applicants to the county’s rental assistance program are families making less than $33,000 a year.
“That’s why we need these funds, to keep all of these individuals and their families safely in their home,” Glass said. “And so, I look forward to working with my colleagues and our state partners, as well, to advocate for these people, for our neighbors.”
The current rental assistance landscape
The county has distributed $67.5 million to prevent eviction in roughly 9,400 households. Those funds have been distributed over multiple rounds of funding from local, state and federal sources.
The current denial rate for the applications is around 20%, Harris said. That is attributed to renters who do not actually owe back rent, an increase in fraudulent claims and unresponsiveness through the application process, among other factors, she added.
Maxwell Uy, chief deputy in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, told council members that in recent months, less than 10% of the writs for eviction actually result in eviction.
In November, there were 32 evictions in the county. In December, there were 69.
Last month, there were 37. Of those, 28 tenants were not present during the eviction, Uy said. County officials have said it’s difficult to track data for those who decide to leave their home on their own, and forgo the eviction process in court.
County officials, housing organizers and those in the judicial system also said Tuesday that homelessness and housing affordability will be issues for years, beyond the pandemic. Harris said there needs to be more effort in housing affordability, housing vouchers and other solutions.
Frank Vitale, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid, has helped tenants through numerous cases during the coronavirus pandemic. He often tells them when an eviction case is dismissed or settled that he hopes to never see them again — a sign that that person is in stable housing.
“The tail on this crisis is going to be very, very, very long,” Vitale said. “There are a number of issues here that existed before the pandemic that were only exacerbated. … Housing instability is not new to the county. Poverty is not new to this county. It is going to be a problem for a long time.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com