Rental assistance programs continue to face backlogs

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- A backlog of rental assistance applications means some renters are facing eviction while they wait for help they are qualified for.

Charmaine Johnson started her week with an eviction notice at the door. The eviction comes three months after Johnson applied for assistance through Cumberland County's Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

"The process said that it was supposed to take three to four weeks. I went through, checked daily, probably two weeks in, I had contacted the program, and they said that my application was still under review. My landlord had submitted their portion and everything, but I'm still waiting," she said.

The Cumberland County mother was laid off from her job in April. With unemployment benefits, she was able to get by but knew that would come to an end, so she proactively applied for funds before she got too far behind.

"It shouldn't have been three months for this to remedy because again, I was $250 behind whenever I applied for the assistance. I'm now $3,600 behind," she said.

Johnson is one of more than 6,000 renters in Cumberland County who applied for assistance. The program has awarded money to only around 22% of applicants.

Delays in processing applications have been an ongoing critique of rental assistance programs across the state. The overwhelming demand for assistance created backlogs for the newly created programs tasked with distributing millions of federal dollars.

ORGANIZATIONS FILE COMPLAINT

This week multiple Fayetteville community organizations decided to submit a federal complaint against the program.

"Our goal is to expedite the process to get the funds dispersed as quickly as possible. We believe that by bringing this issue to the attention of the federal agencies that the city of Fayetteville and their vendor will take seriously the concerns that have been raised," explained Stella Adams, the founder of S J Adams Consulting, a civil rights research and consulting firm.

Adams along with Fayetteville PACT and the National Black Leadership Caucus NC 8th Congressional District submitted the complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development along with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.

"You've got families with children that are out on the street, living in hotels because they were completely eligible for the program, but because the funding didn't happen in time, they were evicted," Adams said calling the program overly complicated and cumbersome.

The federal complaint makes multiple claims against the program including that it is administered in a manner that has resulted in evictions and loss of housing. The complaint also stated, "the City of Fayetteville and its vendor Innovative Emergency Management Inc., discriminated in the terms, conditions and in the provisions of services in connection with the rental of housing based on race, national origin, familial status, and disability."

Officials with the rental program said they weren't aware of the complaint until ABC11 requested a comment. Officials with the program said to handle the backlog they have hired additional staff, created a new eviction prevention program, and worked with local nonprofits. Last week Fayetteville City Council members chose to hire even more staff to assist with payments.

Still, advocates are pressing for more to be done.

"I think the lack of the ability to process the applications and the lack of screenings, and maybe even the lack of who is a priority is definitely a problem," said Kathy Greggs with the Fayetteville PACT.

'AT MY WIT'S END'

Carrie Williams is one of the renters who needed help but found out she didn't qualify.

The veteran and mother of five had to quit her job when her children caught COVID-19.

"I was at my wit's end. You know I have an eviction notice and everyone's telling me no, I can't have an eviction on my record either. I can't afford that," Williams said.

Williams said between her disability and unemployment checks she calculated she made just $40 over the income limit.

"It really left me feeling. I'm going to say hopeless because that was my last choice that was my last resort. It was put away for people who were affected by the pandemic and I'm being told I can't use it," she said.

To be eligible for the Fayetteville/ Cumberland County program, renters need to be at or below 80% of the Area Median Income. Wake County's program has a similar limit and in Durham County applicants with lower incomes are prioritized.

Williams was able to get help through another organization. Just this week she was accepted for another job in her field and her children returned to school. But she remains concerned about others who are still facing eviction.

"The need is not being filled," she said.

Johnson has a new job and is hoping she will be able to file an appeal to buy her family more time to get caught up on rent.

"I was able to find a job that was able to get me caught up on all my utilities everything, and I printed off all my paperwork everything to show why I was not able to pay the rent, and what measures I did take to prevent this from happening," Johnson said.

There are still thousands of renters awaiting help across Cumberland, Wake, and Durham County. Each program is also still reporting millions of available funds. The programs reported an average wait time spanning a week to 45 days between applying and receiving funds.

For more information about the programs, see the resources below:

Durham County: https://durhamerap.dconc.gov/cares

Wake County: https://housewake.org/

Cumberland County: https://www.fayettevillenc.gov/city-services/economic-community-development/housing/emergency-rental-assistance-program
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