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Officials: COVID-19 rental assistance 'moving more quickly'

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The state authority charged with distributing up to $263 million in federal funding for emergency rental assistance told a panel of lawmakers on Wednesday it has pledged for distribution most of the money, eliminating the risk of a federal take back. 

So far, about 3,307 Alabamians have received a total of nearly $22 million in pandemic-related rental assistance. 

“(The process is) certainly moving more quickly,” Bob Strickland, executive director of the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, told a legislative oversight committee.

Lawmakers have questioned what they called a slow and cumbersome process of getting the pandemic aid to those at risk of eviction.

“We’re sitting here because we’re hearing a lot from our constituencies, both the tenants and the landlords,” Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said. 

Some advocacy groups at the hearing said that eviction is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to families, especially children, and urged officials to move quickly.

About 6,700 applicants are awaiting payments that should come soon. The authority expects to pay out about $20 million per month through the rest of the year. Qualifying applicants can get up to 15 months of rent assistance, per the U.S. Treasury guidelines. In most instances, the money goes directly to landlords.

Information on how to apply for aid and needed documents can be found online at https://eraalabama.com/faq-tenant.

Late last month, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chair of the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent the authority and Gov. Kay Ivey a letter asking why the state hasn’t been quicker in distributing the aid.

“Alabama’s distribution of federal rental assistance funds has been far too slow,” Clyburn wrote. “… The state’s sluggish distribution of assistance comes in the face of significant need.”

In all, the authority has received more than 71,000 applications for help. More than 44,000 have been withdrawn because the applicants didn’t complete the process. Others are still in various stages of application and review.

The authority earlier this year hired Jackson, Miss.-based Horne LLC to provide staff for a call center and application review. In a response to Clyburn, the authority said it had reserved $26.3 million, 10 percent of the funding as allowed by the Treasury, for administration of the program.

“We implore you to do whatever you can to ramp this up as expediently as possible,” Singleton told authority and Horne representatives.

Congress, through last year’s Consolidated Appropriations Act and this year’s American Rescue Plan Act, has authorized more than $46 billion in emergency rental assistance to help people avoid evictions. 

Separate from the state’s allocation, $63 million was sent directly to local jurisdictions, including Jefferson County and Birmingham.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said this distribution process shows the long-standing lack of affordable housing in the state.