All Omaha renters hurt by the pandemic can now apply for emergency rental assistance regardless of their citizenship or U.S. legal status. The City of Omaha reversed its legal position last week Wednesday on who can receive the federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) money, removing citizenship as a qualification for the rental and utility relief program that opened in April 2021.

Emergency Rental Assistance Program applications are available online and at the South Omaha Library, 2808 Q St., in languages including Karen and Spanish. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

The citizenship requirement drop differs from the way Nebraska’s ERA funds are distributed, but puts Omaha on track with Lincoln, where the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has been open to all residents since its beginning.

Omaha currently has $18 million left in ERA funding to distribute by Dec. 29. Applicants can qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance — up to 12 months of money the renter owes from the past and up to three months of future rent money, according to Karina El-Refai, Omaha’s ERAP Manager at MACCH, the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH). 

The agency has been distributing Omaha’s ERA funds since the city received ERA funds in April 2021. Now El-Refai and other organizers are changing their outreach to assist people who are undocumented in the rental assistance application process.

“We always prioritize first-round applicants, and because undocumented folks were previously not allowed to apply for ERA funding, and they’re now allowed to apply for ERA funding, their applications will be prioritized in terms of processing,” El-Refai said. 

The change comes after conversations pushed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska and a review by the City Legal Department that was requested by the mayor and the ACLU. During that review, the City Legal Department concluded that while a state law requires U.S. citizenship for public benefits, ERA funds fell under an exception to that rule, reported the Nebraska Examiner

“We were able to advocate for this change through conversations,” said Jane Seu, the immigration fellow at the ACLU, “We just hope that this assistance reaches those who need it most.”

Along with the previous requirement of citizenship, language barriers have also kept many immigrants from applying for assistance, El-Refai said, and her team is trying to change that.

Spanish speakers can fill out a contact form to connect with a Spanish-speaking specialist who will reach out to answer questions, help with requesting documentation and assist with the completion of the application in person or over the phone. The form is also available at the South Omaha Library, 2808 Q St. MACCH is working on partnering with organizations in South Omaha to connect Spanish specialists with people who can help.

The MACCH website includes information in English, Spanish and Karen, and El-Refai often helps Arabic speakers with the application personally.

When should I apply?

Apply as soon as possible. While the emergency funding is available until December 29, money may run out sooner than that, El-Refai said.

If you speak Spanish and are still wondering if you qualify for the program or need assistance with your application, fill out this contact form to get in touch with a specialist. You can also email MACCH at in English or Spanish. For assistance over the phone, you can also dial 211 or text “Omaha ERAP” to 898211.

A flyer details in Spanish how Omaha residents can get help applying for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Photo by MACCH.

Am I eligible for rental assistance?

According to MACCH, you’re eligible for the program if:

  • You are a renter and your name is on your current residential lease or rental agreement.
  • You live in the city limits of Omaha. No proof of immigration status is needed.
  • Your household is at or below 80% of Area Median Income for the Omaha metropolitan area. Households below 50% AMI will be prioritized.
Photo by MACCH.
  • At least one person in the household can give a written explanation of the negative financial impact as a direct or indirect result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • At least one person in the household can show a risk of homelessness or housing instability.

What documents do I need to apply for rental assistance?

Make sure you have these documents when you apply:

  • A signed lease or rental agreement with your name, address and signature page clearly visible.
  • A photo ID and documentation that verifies your address. If the address on your ID doesn’t match your current address, MACCH says, provide a utility bill, mail from a school or mail from another government agency.
  • Housing instability document or proof of housing instability. Document examples include: 
    • A past due utility bill
    • A past due rent notice
    • An eviction notice, a notice to quit or a notice to vacate
    • An explanation of risk to your housing situation
  • Proof of COVID-19 Impact. This COVID-19 document will need to be completed in your application. It’s a document that details how COVID-19 has caused a negative financial impact to you or someone in your household.

You will also need an email address to apply.

Contact the writer bridget@el-perico

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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