Aug 6, 2021 - Politics

Arkansas sits on $190 million in pandemic rental aid

Illustration of a hundred-dollar bill masked by the shape of the state of Arkansas.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An estimated $190 million in federal rental assistance remains unspent in the state, a Northwest Arkansas Axios analysis shows.

State and local authorities received more than $201 million in pandemic emergency rental assistance, but at the start of August, only $10.6 million — just more than 5% — had been distributed to help people stay in their homes, the analysis of U.S. treasury figures and data provided by counties shows.

  • Overwhelmed agencies, restrictive state policy and a lack of knowledge about the program are to blame, several people told us.

Why it matters: An estimated 25% of Arkansas renters are behind on payments, well above the estimated national average of 14%, due — at least in part — to the pandemic.

  • Families that can't catch up on rent face eviction, which in turn can make it difficult to find new housing as well as impact mental health and children's education.
  • Evicting people during a pandemic also puts them at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
Source: U.S. Treasury Dept., Arkansas Dept. of Human Services, the counties. Chart: Axios Visuals

State of play: Arkansas received four buckets of money based on population.

  • Benton, Pulaski and Washington counties, which each have more than 200,000 residents, received a combined $27.3 million in funds, managed by various local agencies. At the end of July, they'd paid out just $7.4 million to an estimated 1,600 households.
  • The state received $173.7 million, managed by the Department of Human Services (DHS), which has paid out $3.2 million to nearly 1,200 households.

Driving the news: Money not committed by Sept. 30 will be reallocated to other grantees by the Treasury Department.

What's happening: Many people who talked to Axios said the program's not as widely known as it could be. Plus, Arkansas policy requires landlords to submit their own applications for tenants to receive rental assistance.

  • If a landlord isn't aware of the program or doesn't want to participate, the tenant is stuck.
  • Arkansas Renters United told Axios one of the largest property management companies in the state has refused to participate in the program.

Not helping: The agencies tasked with vetting the applications and disbursing the money are overwhelmed, backlogged and short-staffed.

  • Pulaski County, the most densely populated county in the state, had only helped 87 households as of June 30.
  • DHS has increased the number of staff members processing and reviewing applications.

What to watch: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order Tuesday barring evictions for most of the U.S. through Oct. 3, writes Axios' Shawna Chen. So renters behind on payments have a little more cover, though this doesn't impact the Sept. 30 timeline on rental assistance.

The bottom line: State and local governments will ultimately pay for evictions through court costs, sheriff's salaries and homelessness.

  • "Trying to prevent evictions is going to be cheaper than dealing with them after they happen," Bruno Showers with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families told us.

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