FARGO — A program 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 the adoption of a cumbersome app portal from a private vendor last fall, and the backlogs and long wait times that followed, continue to plague the rental assistance program of North Dakota, delaying help for struggling families.
The program pays overdue rent and utilities to tenants who have fallen behind on their payments and provides up to a year of assistance to households who meet income thresholds.
These federal emergency rental assistance funds are provided by the state Department of Social Services, which contracts with nonprofit organizations in North Dakota to register people who may need l ‘aid.
At legislative listening sessions hosted by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People, these nonprofit housing advocates have aired their concerns.
Cody Schuler, executive director of the FM Coalition to End Homelessness, said the state’s approach has delayed people getting help.
“They made the system more complicated,” he said.
Sen. JoNell Bakke, a Democrat from Grand Forks, said as the delays drag on, people’s lives are at stake.
“We can’t just say, ‘We’ll get back to you in a month.’ That’s not how it works,” Bakke said.
North Dakota 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 director of policy at the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the state recently refunded nearly $150 million of that sum because it was unable to spend the money in the deadlines set for the program.
The move upset some housing advocates, who said more could have been done to get the money to people who needed it.
North Dakota isn’t alone in refunding unspent money.
Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota also returned funds, which were redirected to other states asking for more help, including New York, California and New Jersey.
In a letter sent on March 31, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced that her state was returning $81.5 million to the US Treasury.
But she also asked that nearly $18 million be returned to the state to help three tribes in South Dakota that have identified a need for additional help.
North Dakota still has about $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 more than $29 million in rent and utility assistance, she said.
Some 250 to 300 new applications continue to arrive each week.
Judith Red Tomahawk knows all too well the stress of trying to make rent every month.
During her periods of unemployment, Bismarck’s wife borrowed money from relatives and sold valuables so that she and her 40-year-old son, who is in a wheelchair, would have a place to live.
Last spring, they were kicked out of their apartment and had to stay in a motel for a few weeks until she could regroup.
Now, she hopes to help others with the same kind of challenges through a position with the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People.
She encountered difficulties with the Rent Help portal and long wait times on the phone.
“The frustration just goes up and up where everyone is talking but not doing anything,” Red Tomahawk said.
Thomasson acknowledges that backlogs in the program were common initially, but she said they are past that now.
She said applications are usually processed within seven days and phone wait times have been reduced.
“We were really able to get back to playing like you would want a statewide program to happen,” Thomasson said.
Still, there are times when the program is not able to prevent an eviction.
In some circumstances, a housing provider chooses to continue with the eviction process even though a tenant can demonstrate they have resources, she said.
Rent Help app advisors can attest to that.
The results of an informal survey of these councilors were presented during a recent legislative listening session.
Bid advisers said that in some cases, nonprofits used their own funds to fill the void and help tenants avoid eviction. These funds were not reimbursed to them by the state, they said.
Some of the bid advisers also said that their agency’s relationship with landlords or utility companies had been negatively affected by association with North Dakota Rent Help due to backlogs and delays in distributing money. .
The survey also asked if a positive change in the process or system had occurred in the last month or so.
Although some respondents noted some improvement, they said the program was still not working as it should.