'My back is against the wall': In a struggling city, some federal rental aid has proved hard to spend.

·11 min read

DECATUR, Ill. - Shane Hartman figured that giving away badly needed rental assistance in a city battered by the pandemic recession would be relatively easy. But five months after his nonprofit was tapped by city officials to hand out more than half a million dollars in federal aid, he had distributed only $44,772, and had helped just 21 families.

The problem wasn't a lack of need. Decatur's unemployment rate hovered around 10 percent, compared to about 6 percent nationally. Hartman heard regularly from people who were months behind on their rent and desperate for help. But too many of those who came to his office seeking aid gave up before completing the eight-page application that required dozens, and in a few cases hundreds, of pages of financial documents.

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By early May, a pile of more than 50 half-finished application packets sat on his desk.

"I would love to have a conversation with someone who wrote these rules and ask them: 'Do you realize how hard you've made it to spend this money?' " Hartman said. " 'Do you get it? They can't. There's no way.' "

The money Hartman hasn't been able to spend was part of the initial $4 trillion flood of aid approved by Congress in the spring of 2020. About $5 billion went to rental and utility assistance programs. More recently, Congress added another $46.5 billion in rental assistance - a sum almost as big as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual budget.

Housing and consumer advocates say the money has been slow to reach renters and landlords - though there's no good estimate for how much has gotten in the hands of people who need it.

Some of the delay is due to the magnitude of the task, which relies on more than 700 local partners to vet applicants and pass out the aid. "We've been standing up a new national infrastructure for preventing evictions and we're building it at warp speed," said a senior Treasury official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal dynamics of the program.

On Friday, the Treasury Department said it had distributed $6.1 billion to on-the-ground partners in the past two weeks. The challenge has been getting that money into the hands of renters and landlords. In some cases, it has been hard for cash-strapped cities to build the capacity to spend the money quickly. A lack of clear guidance from Washington caused some grantees to develop "burdensome application requirements," which have increased processing times and limited participation, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office.

To fix that roadblock, the Biden administration in May put out new guidance urging local partners to allow applicants in some instances to self-attest to hardships, rather than providing written proof. For example, renters living in an impoverished census tract might not have to produce pay stubs or tax returns proving they meet the program's income thresholds.

But only about 155 of the 364 programs tracked by the National Low Income Housing Coalition have adopted the less burdensome standards. "Big systems take time [to change]," said the senior Treasury official. Some states such as Texas, North Carolina and Alaska have moved quickly to spend rental assistance money.

But so far, the new guidance has not made much of a difference in Decatur. Hartman emailed the new Biden rules to local HUD officials, but was told they applied only to the new Treasury funds that are just coming online, not the HUD funds from early 2020.

The upshot for Hartman: He still had $467,038 in rental assistance that was proving almost impossible to spend. He plucked an unfinished rental assistance application from his growing pile and dialed the cellphone number on the form. He was trying to reach 49-year-old Toni Snipes, who owed more than $4,000 in back rent and electric bills.

"Is this a bad moment?" asked Hartman, who could hear a rustling in the background.

For now, Snipes was just another harried, stressed-out voice on the phone; someone desperately in need of the aid that Hartman could not seem to share. He ran through the documents missing from her application: her past six months of pay stubs, her tax returns and something he could use to prove her loss of income was caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Then he noticed a problem.

The easiest way to prove a loss of income due to the pandemic is a letter from an employer confirming that the person seeking aid had been laid off. Snipes's last job was for a temp agency and Hartman knew from experience that they almost never signed such letters. He hung up the phone and dropped Snipes's application back on the pile.

"This is going to be another tough one," he said.

Hartman wasn't the only one in Decatur with unspent money. Last summer, the Empowerment Opportunity Center received more than $280,000 in federal rental assistance. More than 2,200 people had called about the aid and 275 had started applications. So far, only 75 have qualified for the help.

"The community is lousy with rental assistance money that people cannot get at," said Tara Murray, the group's executive director. "It blows my mind that more money is coming and we can't get what we have out of the door,"

Hartman and his nonprofit group, Dove Inc., were tapped by city officials in October to start a second federally funded rental assistance program. By December, he was taking applications. He realized he had a problem in January when his first successful aid applicants - a married couple that had been laid off from the city's Caterpillar truck plant - had finished their application. It was more than an inch thick.

Hartman snapped a picture and sent it to the city. "It's easier to get a mortgage on a home than fill out this form," Hartman told city officials who were working with the regional HUD to simplify the process. At the time, the application form was 22 pages. With HUD's help, city officials whittled it down to an eight-page document.

But the form was still too unwieldy, Hartman said. Some of his clients struggled with literacy and had trouble with questions such as one that asked them in a few sentences to "explain or describe [their] change in income." Others were put off by requirements that they produce six months of pay stubs, a copy of their lease and the previous year's tax returns.

A furloughed waitress was approved for rental assistance, but then disqualified because her landlord would accept only her full back rent, which was larger than the $5,000 grant Hartman could offer. "I talked to that landlord for at least an hour," he said.

A laid-off Foot Locker manager who seemed like a promising candidate disappeared midway through the process, her application half-finished. Hartman called her several times to no avail.

Some city officials wondered if the applicants were simply lazy. "I get that question all the time," Hartman said. His view is that many were just overwhelmed by the pandemic, their children's online schooling, mounting debts, new jobs or worries about the future.

Often the applicants' biggest barrier was producing some scrap of evidence that showed that their loss of income was caused by the pandemic. Two days after Hartman and Snipes spoke briefly on the phone, Snipes showed up at his office, her purse overflowing with her tax returns and her overdue bills. Her bank balance was negative $243.89 because of a bounced check for her water bill.

"Hopefully, I've got something you need in here," she told Hartman, nodding toward her purse.

At the top of the pile of bills was a bright pink final disconnect notice from the water company, warning her that she was due to be shut off the following morning. Hartman offered to pay the $317.07 bill with privately donated funds. "This will be the easiest thing we do today," he said.

In the parking lot of the community center where Hartman and Snipes met, cars were lining up for boxes of food. It was one of the few federally subsidized programs that required almost no documentation. To get a box, people in need simply had to be willing to show their driver's licenses and sign their names.

Inside, Hartman sorted through Snipes's papers spread out on the table in front of them. "I got your lease. I got your taxes. I got your pay stubs," he said. Her back rent and utility bills added up to a little over $4,023.33.

When the pandemic hit last year, Snipes was making $11 an hour working as a janitor for Richland Community College. She was laid off in June when the school year ended. She could have applied for unemployment but instead sought work with a temp firm that placed her on the overnight shift at a factory 40 miles from her home.

"I've never been a person to take advantage of the system," she said in an interview.

The factory work was hard on her body, and the hours were often uneven. Her car - a rusting 1999 Honda Accord - made the long commute difficult. So in March, Snipes stopped seeking shifts from the temp firm and decided to apply for unemployment benefits. Her claim was denied by state officials who concluded she hadn't been laid off from the temp agency job. A month later, Snipes was hospitalized for two days with an irregular heartbeat. Then her car died. "I didn't have enough money to get it fixed," she said, "so I had them tow it to my house until I could figure out my next step."

The only thing Hartman needed before he approved Snipes's claim was a document showing that she had lost income because of the coronavirus pandemic. In theory, it should've been easy. Snipes had been laid off from her community college job, which resulted in a loss of income.

But Snipes didn't tell Hartman about that job, thinking that her most recent position was the only one that mattered. So she mentioned only her job with the temp agency.

"Do you think [the temp firm] would be willing to say that, because of the pandemic, they couldn't find work for you?" Hartman asked.

"I do not," Snipes replied.

She said that she might have a text message from the temp firm telling her that her services were no longer needed. Hartman brightened. "That might be the home run or at least a base hit," he said smiling and nodding. "I am so excited about that text."

Snipes began searching her phone. The temp firm had sent her dozens of messages. "Hi Toni, you are on the schedule to work today," most of them began. None of them said exactly the words that Hartman needed. Snipes stuffed her paperwork back in her purse and promised to keep looking.

"If you can find that one magic message that says we don't want you, that's the ticket," Hartman said.

Snipes promised to keep trying. "My back is against the wall," she told him.

On Sunday, both Hartman and Snipes headed off to church. Hartman was the part-time preacher at a 178-year-old country church in Mechanicsburg, about 30 miles west of Decatur. In the main sanctuary, Nellie, the church pianist, played a quiet hymn. Hartman said a prayer over the Communion, and thought about all the people, including Snipes, that he hadn't been able to help that week.

He knew there was a need for the rental assistance funds. People like Snipes showed up every day at his office in Decatur and also at his church, where the fellowship room was overflowing with donated food.

"We have more families each week at our food pantry than we have go to church," he said.

In Decatur, Snipes, who was training to be a deacon, was one of the first to arrive at her church. A half-hour before services, she knelt before the altar and said a quiet prayer. Soon the thundering and joyful noises of a choir, two organs and a drum shook the old, brick sanctuary.

Snipes's Bible, highlighted in blue and orange, sat on the chair next to her. Her eyes were fixed on the pastor. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he preached the scripture.

"If you will put God first you won't have to worry about your career, your bills or your ministry," he shouted. Snipes nodded in agreement.

When the service ended, she and the church deacons collected and counted the weekly tithes. On this Sunday, she had nothing to give. "A tithe is 10%," she explained. "What's 10% of zero? Someone might say that's not right, but God knows."

- - -

The Washington Post's Tony Romm and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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