Washington Post, March 19, 2008: Emergency Rent Funds Go Fast

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By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; B01

A District program aimed at helping low-income renters avoid eviction spent $8 million in its first 14 months and is in such demand that advocacy groups are asking city officials to increase funding.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), established in the last two weeks of 2006, was designed to curb homelessness in a city where one in five residents is poor and the average apartment rent is almost $1,900 a month.

An analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute shows that 59 percent of low-income households in Washington spend half or more of their income on housing. The institute says that one in five working residents earns less than $11 an hour, or about $22,000 in a year, working full time.

“With what people earn and what it costs to live here, month in and month out, there are thousands of families that are on the edge of financial collapse,” said Ed Lazere, the institute’s executive director. “A worsening economy could make things worse as people see their earnings going down because they lose jobs or lose hours on a job.”

Through February, the District had paid $7 million for rental arrears for 3,464 households and $1 million for security deposits and first month’s rent for 874 households, ERAP officials said. Regulations limit ERAP aid to households with children or elderly or disabled persons. Applicants’ annual income may not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which ranges from $12,999.96 for a family of one to $26,499.96 for a family of four.

Of ERAP recipients to date, 80 percent were families with children, and 20 percent were households that included elderly or disabled persons.

“This clearly provides vital assistance to residents of the District that need assistance to keep a roof over their head,” said Clarence Carter, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, which administers the program.

One of the community agencies contracted by the DHS to distribute rental assistance said recently that it could soon run out of emergency money. The number of applications for rental assistance has been “overwhelming,” an official with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness said.

“At the rate we’re spending now, we’re going to run out of funds before our contract ends, and we don’t want that to happen,” said Clarence Stewart, director of housing for the partnership. Stewart recently told the DHS that his agency, which received $2.2 million in ERAP funds to distribute in fiscal year 2008, had provided more than $1 million dollars in the first four months of its contract.

A review by the Department of Human Services showed the average emergency rental check for arrears and late fees under ERAP last year was $2,002.71. The average security deposit paid was $848.80, and the combined average first month’s rent and security deposit was $1,278.80. The cap on benefits per household is $4,250 for arrears of up to five months. Families of seven or more or with member with a severe illness or disability can get as much as $6,000 for more than five months of back rent if they face “a serious threat” of losing their homes, according to program rules. Residents are restricted to one rental assistance payment within a 12-month period.

The alternative to rental assistance, say advocates for the poor and homeless, is often the much more expensive city shelter system. The average cost of housing a family in a shelter is $30,000 a year, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Through last summer, homeless families averaged at least a year in a city shelter while they waited for a spot in a transitional housing program or for something they could afford, the partnership said.

“We believe it’s terrifically cost-effective to provide this assistance,” said Sczerina Perot, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

The legal clinic, along with the Fair Budget Coalition, lobbied the D.C. Council in 2006 to create the rental assistance program. A similar program existed for years but was abolished in 1994 during a city budget crisis. By 2006, emergency rental assistance was the top unmet need cited in constituent requests for help from the D.C. Council.

Advocacy groups are now asking city officials for increased ERAP funds in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty‘s fiscal year 2009 budget, which will be unveiled tomorrow, said Martina Gillis Massey of the Fair Budget Coalition. The groups are also asking for the city to help all low-income renters, not just those with children or who are elderly or disabled.

A spokeswoman for Fenty (D) would not comment on the budget before to its release, but the mayor’s office released a statement saying, “The administration is committed to ending homelessness in the District of Columbia and providing the resources necessary to achieve that goal, including eviction prevention.”

Evictions in the District did drop last year, the first full year of the rental assistance program. There were 2,011 evictions in 2007, compared with 2,422 the year before, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless believes ERAP has prevented thousands of families from being booted out of their apartments and becoming homeless, Perot said.

District residents may apply for rental assistance at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Housing Counseling Services, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities. All four groups offer counseling services to help families learn how to prevent falling back into the rent-due hole.

In Maryland, the State Department of Housing and Community Development runs a Rental Allowance Program that offers one to two years of help to people who are homeless or in danger of homelessness. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development has a Homeless Intervention Program that provides emergency rental and mortgage assistance to low-income households at imminent risk of homelessness.

Last month, Alindria Despertt of Southwest Washington received almost $3,900 in emergency aid to pay back rent and late fees, preventing the eviction of her and her 7-year-old from their $900-a-month, one-bedroom apartment. She fell behind when she lost her full-time job, and she’s been trying to make ends meet with two occasional part-time jobs. Last week, Despertt was back at the agency, attending a money management class.

She received the money through Housing Counseling Services. “I appreciate everything that they did for me,” said Despertt, who is looking for full-time work. The proof is at the agency, where Despertt’s “thank you” card is on file. “Housing Counseling Service ,” she wrote, “I want to thank you so much. You all have really bin a blessing to me.”

Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.

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