PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two big updates to the RentReliefRI program went into effect on Tuesday: applicants who have become unresponsive will now be denied, and a one-month internet stipend is being offered to recipients.

After a bumpy launch earlier this year, the program has since helped 349 families by providing more than $3 million worth of assistance for rent and utilities.

“It’s really a program designed to help people who were really impacted by COVID,” said Chris Hunsinger, chief strategy and innovation officer at RI Housing. “It’s cast broadly as to who can qualify for help, but just because somebody’s back working now doesn’t mean that they weren’t impacted by COVID.”

Hunsinger said beginning on Tuesday, the program will reject applications from people who have stopped responding to RentReliefRI’s attempts to reach out.

“We do want to move folks who are non-responsive out of the process so that staff is focusing on getting those applications of people who are still actively working to get help,” Hunsinger explained, adding that applications will be denied after a representative has tried to contact the applicant three times by phone or email with no response.

In addition, the program is offering an internet stipend of $50 a month to help tenants set up or cover the cost of service, according to Hunsinger.

“We know how important access to internet can be as an equity issue — work from home, school from home — we learned all that during COVID,” she said. “The program will automatically address the internet stipend.”

While money from RentReliefRI is helping to prevent evictions, Hunsinger said the program won’t allow them to pay landlords directly if the renter isn’t cooperating.

“The whole process works really well when everyone is working together,” Hunsinger said. “The program rules are designed at the federal level, so within the statute, legally we cannot pay a landlord when the tenant is nonresponsive.”

For landlords who oversee bigger properties with multiple tenants, the process may be more time-consuming, so Hunsinger said to have patience.

“The good news is, once [the tenant is] in there, after three months of passing, they’re up for recertification … the process is much simpler,” Hunsinger explained, saying landlords only have to enter all of that information once.

For Rhode Islanders who are behind on mortgage payments, Hunsinger said relief will be coming at the end of summer or early fall, but RentReliefRI is waiting on guidance from the federal government.

“All of the things required to run the program — the rules about who’s eligible, what you need to do in order to get help — have not been determined yet,” she said.

Hunsinger advised anyone who’s behind on their mortgage payments to contact the servicer and explain the situation.

“Let them know what’s going on and they can walk you through what help is available now and what options you have,” Hunsinger added.

If you receive a denial email but still need help, Hunsinger said you can contact the call center, but the process will start over.