Feb 12, 2021 - News

Rent assistance in Des Moines goes unused due to COVID issues

Illustration of a homeless person sitting in front of a white picket fence

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There are roughly 200 rent vouchers for poor families going unused each month in DSM because of administrative headaches linked with the pandemic, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Low-income families have been hit hardest by pandemic-driven shutdowns, per the Pew Research Center. They need this help now more than ever.

The state of play: More than 3,200 low-income families in Des Moines receive Section 8 vouchers, a $15 million program administered by the city.

  • But he city has been unable to quickly process new applications as other families leave the program, leaving vouchers unfilled.
  • More than 500 families remain on a waiting list.
  • The average monthly assistance is $455.

What's happening: The city’s housing agency is located at Polk County River Place, a government building that has been closed to the general public throughout the pandemic.

  • The agency’s office is still open, but sees clients by appointment only.
  • Applicants are required by federal rules to watch a two-hour presentation. An online option wasn’t available until recently.
  • And staffing crunches have contributed to delays. Four of the office's five staffers were absent at one point in recent months for COVID-linked reasons.

Worth noting: A voucher program for 143 homeless veterans and another for foster kids aging out of the system have so far remained steady, agency director Chris Johansen told us. Other assistance has also been made available:

  • An eviction prevention program run by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund has contributed nearly $1.8 million in government allocations and private donations, helping roughly 1,000 households.
  • An additional $14 million in federal aid was announced yesterday for Des Moines and Polk County residents for as much as a year of rent assistance.

What's next: City housing staffers are trying to ramp up the program, but a lot depends on pandemic recovery. They’re currently filling about around 20 a month.

Of note: To increase housing opportunities, Des Moines passed an ordinance in 2019 that requires landlords to accept the vouchers.

  • A legislative effort would prohibit such mandates and — if passed — could complicate the city’s efforts.

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