Payment delays persist as North Dakota Rent Help program works to improve
Those who enroll renters in the program say there's been some improvement, but delays in receiving funding still occur, resulting in unnecessary evictions.
FARGO — A program meant to help tenants who have fallen behind on rent payments during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to draw criticism in North Dakota even as administrators say the situation has improved.
Critics say adoption of a cumbersome application portal from a private vendor last fall, and backlogs and long wait times that followed, still plague the North Dakota Rent Help program, causing a delay in relief for struggling families.
The program pays overdue rent and utilities for tenants who have fallen behind on payments and offers up to a year's worth of assistance for households that meet income thresholds.
These federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds are delivered through the state Department of Human Services, which contracts with nonprofits across North Dakota to enroll people who might need the assistance.
At legislative listening sessions put on by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People, those nonprofit housing advocates brought their concerns to light.
Cody Schuler, executive director of the F-M Coalition to End Homelessness, said the state’s approach has delayed people receiving help.
“They’ve made the system more complicated,” he said.
Sen. JoNell Bakke, a Democrat from Grand Forks, said as delays drag on, people’s lives hang in the balance.
“We can't just say, ‘We’ll get back to you in a month.’ That’s not how this works,” Bakke said.
ND returns $149 million
North Dakota has received a total of $352 million from the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance program to help people pay rent and utility expenses during the pandemic.
Jessica Thomasson, executive policy director at the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the state recently returned nearly $150 million of that, however, because it was unable to spend the money within deadlines set for the program.
North Dakota is not alone in having returned unspent money.
Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota also turned back funds, which have been redirected to other states requesting more help, including New York, California and New Jersey.
In a letter sent March 31, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced her state was returning $81.5 million to the U.S. Treasury.
But she also requested nearly $18 million of that come back to the state to help three South Dakota tribes that identified a need for additional assistance.
North Dakota still has around $200 million available in the program through the end of 2024, Thomasson said.
To date, more than 6,000 households in 49 of North Dakota’s 53 counties have received over $29 million in rent and utilities assistance, she said.
Some 250 to 300 new applications continue to come in each week.
Judith Red Tomahawk knows all too well the stress of trying to make rent each month.
During stints of unemployment, the Bismarck woman borrowed money from relatives and sold valuables so she and her 40-year-old son, who’s in a wheelchair, had a place to live.
Last spring, they were evicted from their apartment and had to stay in a motel for a few weeks until she could regroup.
Now, she hopes to help others navigate the same kind of challenges through a position with the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People.
She has experienced difficulties with the Rent Help portal and long wait times on the phone.
“The frustration just builds and builds to where everyone's talking but not doing anything,” Red Tomahawk said.
Evictions still happen
Thomasson acknowledges backlogs in the program were common initially, but she said they’ve moved past that now.
She said applications are typically being processed within seven days, and phone wait times have been reduced.
“We really have been able to get back to performing as you would want a statewide program to perform,” Thomasson said.
Still, there are times the program is not able to prevent an eviction.
In some circumstances, a housing provider chooses to continue with the eviction process even if a renter can demonstrate they have resources available to them, she said.
The Rent Help application counselors can vouch for that.
Results of an informal survey of those counselors were presented at a recent legislative listening session.
Application counselors said in some cases, nonprofits used their own funds to fill in the gap and help renters avoid eviction. Those funds were not reimbursed to them by the state, they said.
Some of the application counselors also said their agency’s relationship with landlords or utility companies was negatively impacted by the association with North Dakota Rent Help because of the backlogs and delays in getting money dispersed.
The survey also asked whether positive change in the process or system had occurred in the last month or so.
While some respondents noted some improvement, they said the program is still not operating as it should.