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Our view: North Dakota should reconsider before sending back federal rent assistance dollars

Rather than return $149 million, the state should instead first consider ways to modify the program to better help North Dakota residents.

Herald pull quote, 1/12/22
Herald graphic
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Imagine the reaction if North Dakota spent only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of COVID relief dollars it received from the federal government for infrastructure and economic recovery – and then returned nearly half of the sum.

Yet the state appears to be on the verge of sending back almost half of the federal funds it received to help people pay their rents during the coronavirus pandemic. North Dakota received $352 million to distribute to state residents but, according to a report last week in the Herald , plans to return unused dollars.

Hopefully, new thinking will come up with some sort of alternative that will aid North Dakotans in need rather than sending back that incredible sum of money – $149 million.

The dollars come from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Possibly, the feds have overestimated the state’s ability to spend the full amount within the program’s deadlines and parameters.

“We are a state with a population that if you’re going to spend those dollars effectively, according to program guidelines in the timeframe that’s given, that’s not realistic,” Jessica Thomasson, executive director for family stability and community inclusion at the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said in the Herald report.

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According to Thomasson, there are about 120,000 rental units in the state and thousands of renters are eligible, but raising awareness of the program and spending the dollars is a huge task.

It’s OK that state leaders are cautious and prudent with all dollars. Similarly, we understand that the pandemic has brought myriad, and unique, organizational nightmares to governing.

But can’t something more be done to keep these dollars in the state to help people in need?

In the Herald report last week, housing advocates said more work must be done to try to disburse the federal dollars before they are sent back. One issue is that assistance payouts have been slow after the state switched to a private vendor for its online application portal.

“That’s a lot of assistance that can be given to families that need it,” said Jade Eagle, of High Plains Fair Housing. “I feel like it’d be an absolute shame.”

So do we.

Rather than return $149 million, the state should instead first consider ways to modify the program to better help North Dakota residents. One fix would be to remove what some housing advocates say are cumbersome steps, and allow potential recipients to simply self-attest their personal need. The state allows people to self-attest, but only after other methods to document their need have failed.

A better method would be to – as an early step rather than the last step – allow renters to sign a document declaring the impact the pandemic has had on them and their ability to pay rent. Let them declare in writing, “I need help.” And if this federal money gives them a better chance to pay their rent, perhaps it will allow them a bit more financial freedom to buy food or other necessities. The point is that before this money is sent back, it’s best to find ways to circulate it through North Dakota’s economy. There is still time to figure this out – the deadline doesn’t come until September.

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This money is, for all intents and purposes, pork. Even in the eyes of the federal government, it’s meant to be spent, and it can be put to good use in North Dakota.

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A discussion Monday by the Grand Forks Committee of the Whole could lead to changes for public comments at city meetings.