By Chris Bowling
Midnight on Saturday, Dec. 13 is the last day to apply for up to $7,000 in rental assistance in Douglas County. The $10 million program, launched in late July, was made possible by federal CARES Act dollars, which the county has to spend or return by Dec. 31.
To apply, visit the county’s website and fill out its online form. The application requires proof that the applicant’s salary has been affected by COVID-19. The applicant must also submit updated contact information for their landlord, proof of their lease agreement or some other kind of housing contract and proof that they owe rent.
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Once submitted, the individuals landlord must complete the application. That deadline is at midnight on Dec. 20. If approved all funds to pay owed rent will be sent to the landlord.
Any questions about the process can be directed to the county’s rent assistance help desk at 402-444-7232.
So far the county has spent far less than the amount it allotted to keep people housed. As of last week, Melissa Sewick, director of Douglas County General Assistance, said the program had disbursed $6.2 million to 2,539 people, including more than 3,500 kids and 3,100 adults. Sewick said the county will probably end up spending about $8 million. She said the original $10 million allotment, which commissioners had debated raising to $35 million, was a guess and that more people continue getting help as information about the program gets out.
Still, less than half of the 5,761 people who’ve applied have been approved to receive help. Some are still waiting to be processed and others are waiting on landlord responses, but more than 1,500 were denied, mostly due to insufficient documentation. About half of those remaining were denied upon resubmission.
An additional $1.5 million remains of the county’s utility assistance fund, which can go to helping pay owed electric and gas charges. The last day to apply for that is Dec. 14.
Sewick said last week that the high denial rate has to do with the strict CARES Act guidelines imposed on Douglas County by the federal government.
“We made it as simple as possible for tenants to receive the funding and for us to be in compliance,” Sewick said. “Unfortunately we don’t make the rules. But we followed them and we followed the wishes of the commissioners as a whole. We tweaked what we could tweak.”
The most common problems she sees are out-of-date phone numbers for landlords. While renters have to initiate the process, it’s incumbent on the landlord’s to finish it.
While Douglas County has started a rental registry that would keep provide direct communication between the landlord and the tenant, the list is far from complete, advocates say.
By putting the burden on tenants, the result is many may be missing out on funds they’re owed.
“It’s frustrating to see people that clearly need this money and should qualify for it, be denied for reasons that may not always be in their control,” said Caitlin Cedfeldt, a housing attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska, which offers free services to low-income individuals.
If you’re facing eviction, a federal moratorium to keep people housed during the pandemic is still in affect. The order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states no one facing eviction for nonpayment of rent can be evicted. All eviction notices are then deferred until the order expires, which is Dec. 31.
To utilize the order, sign and date their online form and send it to your landlord. Cedfeldt said judges and landlords have respected the order in Douglas County. But as one of the few free attorneys available to people facing eviction, she worries what will happen after the new year if another order is not into place.
“How am I going to keep up?” Cedfeldt asked. “There are five of us [with Legal Aid] who cover Nebraska…it’s scary.”
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