Frustrated renters hope changes to NC assistance program quicken approvals

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- These are desperate times for many right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic as they fall behind on rent and lose hope despite millions of federal dollars here in North Carolina to help people behind on their rent.

Since the North Carolina HOPE Program launched in October, it has helped more than 34,000 tenants in rent and utility relief, but there have been problems, leaving some renters frustrated.

Jennifer Ishihara is one of those renters.

"Just hanging on by a thread," she said. "It's been such a hard year."

She applied for the HOPE Program in October.

"Usually, I don't need help, so when I reached out and hadn't gotten it, it's very difficult," she said.

Despite having several emails back and forth with HOPE representatives and making countless calls, she has yet to receive a final answer if she'll receive funds.

"For this program to be so complicated and stressful, it's disheartening," she said.

Tyler Holmes is also frustrated with the HOPE Program.

"There's no communication," Holmes said. "You have a whole bunch of people just waiting to see what is going to happen."

He applied in October for rental assistance and is now nearly $2,000 behind on rent. After many calls to the HOPE Program, he said he finally got in touch with his caseworker in January.

"The lady informed me they approved my application for my utility assistance but for some strange reason, a third-party processing company had lost a portion of my application for rental assistance and at that point in time, they could not help," he said. "It kind of made me feel hopeless because these programs were put in place to help peoples whose jobs were essentially eliminated."

Haley Pfeiffer Haynes with the HOPE Program said she understands these frustrations.

"It really is the volume," she said. "There are just so many people who need help."

To date, the HOPE Program total amount awarded $129,899,702 in rental and utility assistance. Of the 41,000 applicants accepted into the program, about 7,000 applicants are still waiting for final approval.

"It is a number of folks who need help, but we're not going to stop until we're able to help everyone who's eligible," Haynes said.

To speed up and streamline the approval process, The HOPE Program is automating the process, where everything can be done through an online portal.

Another new change in the program -- the program initially required landlords to agree not to evict tenants for the remainder of their lease, now, they only have to agree to 60 days.

"We are hoping this attracts more landlords," Haynes said. "We do have plans to go back to the landlords who previously declined to participate and offer them an award under this new policy."

The HOPE Program is also now using what's known as a formula-based approach to rent awards.

Haynes explained that they will use the county-medium rent for a two-bedroom rental as calculated by HUD, for the amount of allowable monthly rent.

"So, now we know in all cases whether you live in this county or this county, what that amount is going to be, meaning we don't have to get the lease in and do a lot of document verification," she said.

If there is an overpayment of the monthly rent due under this formula, Haynes said, the "excess amounts get credited to other arrears that may be in existence since April 1st, and if there is still more leftover that, that goes to future rent. So, what this does, is it allows more back rent to be paid as well as future rent to be paid."

The HOPE Program is closed to new applicants. The good news, there is a new program in the works as North Carolina is receiving at least an additional $500 million from the Cares Act that passed in December, which will directly help those who need rent and utility assistance.
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