Mississippi to return money from federal rental assistance program, even though tenants and advocates say need remains

In days, Mississippi will end its participation in the federal pandemic housing assistance program that has kept people facing eviction from their homes over the past two years of economic turmoil.

The state still has $130 million in federal cash to run the program, but Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said earlier this month that next Monday would be the last day to apply for assistance. After Mississippi finishes processing the remaining claims, it will return the remaining money to the US Treasury, which monitors spending.

The end of the program comes as rental prices in Mississippi have soared and a large percentage of those who are behind on their rent or mortgage said they could lose their homes in the next two coming months, according to US Census data.

The Rental Assistance Program for Mississippians, or RAMP, provided up to 15 months of assistance with rent and utility bills for people in need. It was funded by two Covid-19 economic bills passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021, which provided billions of dollars in rental relief to states to administer to those economically disadvantaged by the pandemic.

Although unemployment continues to fall in Mississippi and the majority of program participants are employed, Reeves said RAMP discourages work.

“This program has essentially become: if for some reason you can’t pay your rent or your utility bill, the taxpayers will pay it for you,” Reeves said in a statement earlier this month. “Mississippi will continue to say no to those kinds of Liberal grants that encourage people to stay out of the workforce. Instead, we’re going to say yes to conservative principles and policies that get more people working.”

Reeves’ decision hits Mississippi as the country experiences rising housing costs and shrinking economic protections. Nationally, median home listing prices rose 16.6% in July from a year earlier, and rents rose 14.1% in June 2020 from June 2021, according to Realtor.com reports.

Jacob Leibenluft, director of collections at the U.S. Treasury, said programs such as RAMP, which falls under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, have helped keep evictions below historical averages.

He said the Treasury Department continued to strongly urge states to use the funding to serve tenants and noted that more than 6.5 million payments were made to tenants facing eviction in June. Even if the money is returned by the states, he said it will continue to go towards housing.

“As we have done elsewhere in cases where funds are not used by the original recipient,” Leibenluft said, “we will continue to reallocate available funds where possible, prioritizing maintaining funds in the state where there is an exceptional need”.

Housing rights advocates and Mississippi program participants said the problem in their state is not finding work, as Reeves said, but finding wages that can pay the rising cost of life. RAMP has been a huge help in filling the gap, even though it has often taken months to arrive.

Teresa Walker, 45, a hairstylist in Jackson, said the pandemic has caused her to lose many clients. Although business has picked up, it’s still hard to pay his $935 rent. She applied for the program, as well as jobs at Target and Walmart to help pay the roughly $4,000 she owes her landlord.

Because the process is so slow, she hasn’t heard from her since she applied three months ago, and her bills are piling up.

“They don’t care. They just don’t care,” Walker said. “The number of applications they’re getting shows there’s a need, and for them to suggest that people like me don’t work? That’s a slap in the face. It’s very insulting and demeaning. You’re not just not sensitive to the needs and understanding it.”

Data from Mississippi Home Corporation, which operates RAMP, shows the state was still processing nearly 17,000 applications as of July 31.

Rivers Orman, a spokesperson for the state agency dedicated to expanding access to moderate- and low-income housing, said in an email that they “have served more than 36,000 households and have distributed over $200 million in funding to help those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic” since June 2021.

Because they’re still processing so many applications, Orman couldn’t say how much of the $130 million will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, but since Reeve’s announcement, they “have seen an increase in new applications and recertifications.” “.

The typical candidate in Mississippi was black and female, according to Home Corps data. Less than a third of applicants were unemployed, but almost 70% earned less than the median income of the region where they lived.

A coalition of nonprofits that helps people apply for the program said it was difficult to access, especially in a state struggling with high illiteracy rates and poor broadband availability. .

Jeremiah Smith, who runs 662 Tenants Union in a small Delta town, said he knows of many tenants who have dropped out of the process because it takes months to receive a response, and Mississippi Home Corporation is often difficult to contact.

“The program was disrupted early on,” said Smith, who has helped dozens of tenants apply.

Paheadra Robinson, who leads the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative in Jackson, said her group traveled across the state to operate clinics for those who needed help applying for the program.

She said they should bring computers and help people sign up for email accounts for the first time. More clinics were planned over the next month, but they will have to be canceled due to Reeve’s decision, she said.

“A lot of these people could afford where they lived before this burst of rent increases, and now this surge is causing major financial problems for families,” Robinson said. “It’s just unaffordable for a lot of people, and I don’t think that has been given due consideration by the leadership of this state.”

Other states with Republican governors, such as Nebraska and Arkansas, have previously refused federal funding that would help residents pay for housing and utilities.

Govt. Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts and Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson rejected hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly directed to their states, saying they were protecting residents from socialist programs they didn’t need.

“We need to guard against big government socialism where people are incentivized not to work but instead are encouraged to rely on government handouts long after an emergency is over,” Ricketts said in March. “We cannot justify asking for federal assistance when Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and we are no longer in a state of emergency.”

But nonprofits in those states have told a different story since governors rejected federal aid in the spring.

Together Omaha, which handled the rental assistance application process for the state, has had to scramble to provide rental assistance since then, CEO Mike Hornacek said.

“Overall, we’re all living the perfect storm that we’ve all been worried about in the nonprofit sector, which is that the need continues at the level it reached during the pandemic and the funding goes away” , did he declare.

“Unfortunately, in some cases like ours in Nebraska, some leaders just don’t seem to understand that it’s not that simple for people to get back to work.”

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