PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders continue to struggle with distributing money from the state’s $6.5 million rental-assistance program, failing to meet a self-imposed goal of disbursing $200,000 by Wednesday.
The state had issued only $95,000 to 25 applicants as of Wednesday, representing 1.4% of the program’s fund balance. As of two weeks ago, roughly 1,300 families had either qualified or were under review for support from the program, Housing Help RI, first launched on May 2.
The program is designed to help low-income families cover past-due rent to avoid evictions during the pandemic. But applicants have struggled to access the assistance, citing problems with the application process and qualifying requirements.
“I’m not happy about it,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo, when asked about the continued delays during a news conference Wednesday. “I’m personally getting engaged to figure out what bureaucracy I need to clear out to get the money out more quickly.”
A Target 12 report last month first revealed problems with the program, spurring the administration to commit to issuing $200,000 to qualifying families by July 1. The $95,000 issued as of the deadline represents less than half that amount, although spokesperson Mike Raia of Crossroads Rhode Island said another 106 applicants are poised to receive an additional $424,000 from the program soon. (Crossroads, a nonprofit, is administering the program on behalf of the state.)
“We are currently waiting on a specific piece of verification for those applications to process checks [and] ACH transfers,” Raia said. “In many cases, the outstanding documents are W9 forms from landlords. These payments will be processed upon receipt of that verification.”
Despite the delays, Raimondo argued the process is getting better, and she encouraged people to still apply. Crossroads is now receiving some support from other organizations, including community action programs, Rhode Island Housing and Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, according to Raia.
The governor also said she doesn’t see evictions as a major problem yet, noting the extra $600 per week people receive through unemployment insurance has helped families keep up with rent. As of Wednesday, the state had received more than 274,000 unemployment claims since March 9, according to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.
“As it relates to evictions, we’re not seeing a big surge,” Raimondo said.
“Having said that, I’m bracing for what I think could be a spike of evictions in August,” she added, pointing out the extra $600 made available under the federal CARES Act is slated to expire by the end of July.
At least 333 residential evictions were filed for nonpayment of rent since a statewide moratorium on evictions filings ended on June 2, according to a court spokesperson, and another 87 were filed for reasons other than nonpayment.
The number is less than the statewide average of about 537 per month between 2015 and 2019, according to a Target 12 analysis of historic eviction data. But a secondary moratorium on courts hearing any pandemic-related evictions ends Wednesday, and local leaders and housing advocates are warning that families are falling behind on their rental payments, which could eventually result in a surge of homelessness.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a report in May which estimated 9% to 13% of New England renters were at risk of not making housing payments, even with unemployment benefits and the extra $600 per week from the CARES Act.
Without that extra money, the share of renters at risk of missing payments in Rhode Island could increase from 8% to 33%, representing about 51,000 households, according to the report.
In Providence, where roughly 2,700 evictions are filed each year, municipal leaders are also bracing for a rash of new evictions later this month.
Mayor Jorge Elorza on Tuesday committed $1 million of city relief funds to help Providence residents with rental assistance and legal defense. The funding will be administered by Crossroads — based in Providence — in conjunction with Rhode Island Legal Services and the Rhode Island Center for Justice.
Despite the various problems with the state program, Raimondo is still encouraging people to apply for help. And while eviction proceedings are lower than usual right now, demand for rental assistance has soared since the program started, with more than 4,500 families applying as of June 18.
At that time, about 1,500 of the applicants didn’t meet federal income requirements and another 1,700 were asked to submit additional information, leaving roughly 1,300 families who had either been approved or were under review.
In an effort to address the looming threat of new evictions, Raimondo said she’s working with the nonprofit United Way of Rhode Island to establish some type of mediation program to help people stay in their homes. She said more details would come out later this month.
State officials did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether it would establish a new goal for getting the rental assistance money out the door, but Raimondo said during the briefing that she’s committed to doing better.
“We haven’t done a good enough job getting it out fast enough,” Raimondo said. “It is better now, and it will continue to get better.”
Kim Kalunian and Steph Machado contributed to this story.