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‘Who’s helping us?’ RI rental assistance program not paying out

Target 12

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – The state’s $6.5 million rental assistance program has paid out less than $10,000 since launching on May 2, as families seeking help have struggled to find answers through an onerous and opaque application process.

Target 12 has confirmed next to no one has received assistance through the program, known as Housing Help RI, which is designed to help low-income families cover past-due rent to avoid evictions during the public health crisis.

Alva Imbeault and her son Will, who applied for the program the same day it was announced, still don’t know more than a month-and-a-half later whether they have qualified. And they can’t seem to get any answers from state officials. The family this week found an eviction notice attached to their front door.

“I just survived [cancer], I’m going to be 80 in July and I don’t want to be on the street as a homeless woman,” Alva Imbeault told Target 12.

Desperate for answers, and feeling unheard, the mother and son drove to the State House earlier this week to try to explain their situation to Gov. Gina Raimondo. They were instead greeted at the entrance by Capitol Police, who took down their contact information after denying entry. (The State House remains closed to visitors amid the ongoing pandemic.)

“My mother is extremely worried because we received a five-day demand letter last week followed by an eviction notice that was taped to our door without an envelope,” said Will Imbeault, who lost his job as a DJ after all the clubs closed down.

The son had been splitting his weeks working nightclubs in Rhode Island and New York, which complicated his ability to apply for unemployment insurance and made him unable to make rent on time.

The Imbeaults are hardly alone. Demand for the state’s rental assistance program has soared since the beginning of May, with more than 4,500 families applying for help.

About 1,500 of the applicants didn’t meet federal income requirements. Another 1,700 were asked to submit additional information, leaving roughly 1,300 families who have either been approved or are under review.

But the application process is saddled with regulatory hurdles, making it difficult for families to prove they are qualified. Applicants must show evidence of an eviction caused by the pandemic, which has sparked confusion among many who have heard Raimondo repeatedly say pandemic-related evictions are not allowed until July 1.

“I don’t understand,” Alva Imbeault said. “The governor announces on TV we won’t get evicted, we won’t lose our home or our apartment. All that talk, but nothing gets done. Who’s helping us?”

Asked by WPRI 12 about the holdup on funds getting disbursed, Raimondo appeared taken aback, saying she didn’t know that had been happening.  

“I’m disappointed to hear there’s a holdup,” Raimondo said during Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing, adding she would figure out the answer and respond later.

On Thursday evening, spokesperson Brian Hodge responded, saying the state is now committed to disbursing $200,000 by July 1.

The governor first allocated $1.5 million to the program using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds on May 2. After an influx of applications proved demand easily outpaced supply, however, Raimondo on May 28 announced an additional $5 million for the program using federal funding through the CARES Act.

Hodge said the qualifications to receive CARES Act money are more flexible than the HUD funding, which could be good news for some families who were previously denied help.

“We are following up with applicants who were originally ineligible but can now potentially qualify for assistance,” Hodge said.

But both funding sources come with state and federal regulatory guidelines that have made it difficult for Crossroads Rhode Island – the nonprofit administering the program on behalf of the state – to get the money out to qualifying renters.

“We are distributing funds as quickly as we can within the federal requirements,” Crossroads spokesperson Mike Raia said Wednesday. “We’re hopeful that as more applicants complete the federally required documentation that we will be able to accelerate distributions.” The organization is still awaiting final guidance from the state and HUD, he said.

There are also questions swirling around who is responsible for handling the high volume of questions, requests and overall caseload work associated with the 4,500 applications that have come looking for help.

For more than six weeks, the Imbeaults have received nothing but automated responses from the state and Crossroads, including one message displaying multiple people’s email addresses – raising privacy concerns.

Crossroads has since asked the state to allot CARES Act money so other housing advocates, governmental agencies and nonprofits can “hire staff to assist with outreach and case management,” Raia added.

On Thursday, Hodge said the state is now “working to contribute additional staff to support the effort already being undertaken by Crossroads.”

More broadly, the growing demand for rental assistance comes as the public health crisis has forced tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders into unemployment, raising concerns among renters, landlords and advocates who predict joblessness will translate into missed housing payments.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a report last month estimating 9% to 13% of New England renters are at risk of not making housing payments, even with unemployment benefits and the extra $600 per week made available through the federal CARES Act.

Without that extra money – which is set to expire at the end of next month – 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. The timing coincides with the end of the state’s moratorium on pandemic-related evictions, which will end July 1.

The Imbeaults are wary of the imminent deadlines, and are seeking assistance from other places, including the West Bay Community Action Program in Warwick, which might help them catch up on some of the owed rent.

But with each passing month – and no clear sign when Will could get back to work – the family doesn’t know what to expect next.

“My mom is a nervous wreck; I’m a nervous wreck,” he said. “July is coming and we’re going to be right back in the same boat.”   

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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