Faith Klein of the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center advocates for a client to keep their home during a General Sessions Court session in February. (Photo: John Partipilo)
When rent relief became available in 2020 to Nashvillians at risk of losing housing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Davidson County nonprofit organizations rushed to meet the deadline and distributed $10 million.
Since then just a fraction of the current rent relief funds have been distributed, and nonprofits are blaming Metro Action Commission’s technology.
In February, Lookout reporters followed case workers for the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) as they mediated eviction cases heading to court. Davidson County received millions in rent relief through the CARES Act and additional Metro Nashville funds. United Way of Greater Nashville oversaw all financial relief through a charity tracker, distributing funds to nonprofits tasked with providing rent relief and making sure all the money was handed out by their November deadline ahead of the December 31 federal moratorium.
The rush to stave off evictions ahead of the original moratorium deadline was stressful, but according to Sara Figal, executive director of the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center, efforts were largely successful.
This year, additional rent relief funds came to Davidson County through the American Rescue Plan and nonprofit organizations assumed they would continue to work with United Way.
Instead, rent relief would be distributed through the Metro Action Commission (MAC), which had developed technology specifically to apply for rent relief. The program, called the Housing, Opportunity, Partnership, and Employment Program (HOPE), required nonprofits to file their applications through a portal, and since the program was announced in January, Figal worried rent relief would not be distributed as effectively as last year.
On June 21, MAC released statistics and showed that since the portal opened in March, only $2.25 million out of $20 million had been paid out.
It was designed to be a highly rational system of online input that would guarantee a clean audit; but that wasn't the best solution in a pandemic with lower-income people who have been fighting toxic stress for over a year, don't necessarily have internet or even smartphones to handle complex online communications, and don’t keep immaculate file cabinets with bank records,
– Sara Figal speaking about the Metro Action Commission system
Out of 3,774 total applications, 1,113 remained in limbo, 1,605 applications were unaccounted for and only 345 cases were noted as “awarded or pending payment.”
“We worried that this was going to happen,” said Figal.
In comparison, Nashville nonprofits were able to distribute $10 million to 3,800 cases by the end of 2020, while MAC had only paid out a fraction of their funds to 345 cases by spring 2021.
Nonprofit case workers began working on cases in February even though HOPE’s portal was set to open in March, but workers soon found the application a complicated process. Previously, NCRC employees worked more closely with those applying for rent relief. Metro’s program required extensive documentation and broke down cases into a process “that has proven to be too complicated for most applicants–even those who are able to get help, “ said Figal.
“It was designed to be a highly rational system of online input that would guarantee a clean audit; but that wasn’t the best solution in a pandemic with lower-income people who have been fighting toxic stress for over a year, don’t necessarily have internet or even smartphones to handle complex online communications, and don’t keep immaculate file cabinets with bank records,” she added.
“MAC is doing all they can do to make the system work, but it’s a challenging system using the portal,” said Eddie Latimer, CEO at Affordable Housing Resources.
Once an application was submitted, there was nothing to indicate its status. Nonprofits had largely relied on their relationships with landlords in preventing evictions. Considering the bulk of rent relief is going to people below the poverty line, landlords offering affordable rents have also taken a financial hit during the pandemic. Since there was no indication when landlords would receive rent, this made it difficult to keep them waiting.
“If we don’t pay them they’ll leave, and that affordable property will not come back,” said Latimer. “All we’re asking for is to bring more boots on the ground to help meet this wave of evictions that we’re staring at.”
At publication time, MAC officials had not responded to requests for comment.
I get the frustration, don't get me wrong, and that's why we're saying all hands on deck. We need to get the money to people.
– Metro Councilmember Zulfat Suara
Last Friday, the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County met to address concerns that MAC’s program was not distributing funds fast enough.
While admitting that the portal was difficult to use, Councilwoman-at-large Zulfat Suara said some of the delays were caused by the influx of applications that MAC received, which all needed to be sorted to comply with changing and unclear federal guidance. Priority was given to people immediately facing eviction and those below the poverty line, and in trying to do so, things got delayed.
“I get the frustration, don’t get me wrong, and that’s why we’re saying all hands on deck. We need to get the money to people,” said Suara.
Recently, the federal moratorium on evictions was extended until July 31, and Metro Council members plan on spending the next month coordinating events throughout Nashville to facilitate the application process for rent relief.
“No more excuses, let’s just do it,” said Suara.
MAC officials announced that extra staff will be hired and hope to incorporate help from local nonprofits, but Figal is not convinced that this will be sufficient to address the urgent need for rent relief–both for landlords and tenants–in a timely fashion.
“I know that the nonprofits with experience in providing financial assistance will do all they can to help. We just have to hope it isn’t too little, too late,” said Figal. “I also hope that Metro will realize that other funds will be needed to clear the pandemic-related debt burdens and allow our workforce to start rebuilding on a solid foundation.”
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