Lawmakers passed a bill Thursday that will help Mississippi renters and landlords who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More help is coming to Mississippi renters and landlords who are facing economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But federal and state officials will have to prioritize the efficient delivery of these dollars if they want to prevent an eviction avalanche in coming months. Mississippi has spent just a sliver of the rental assistance funding it received over the summer so far.

The Mississippi Legislature passed a bill Thursday evening to divert $20 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, which had been earmarked for small businesses, to residential and commercial landlords who have lost rent revenue after various eviction moratoriums. Mississippi Development Authority will administer the grants, up to $30,000, and no more than 25% may go to commercial properties.

The Legislature’s appropriation for rental assistance comes nearly seven months after the pandemic began in March, causing Mississippi’s unemployed population to spike from 64,286 to 195,429 people in one month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Separately, Gov. Tate Reeves’ office plans to announce shortly its decision to allocate the entirety of the state’s $38 million Community Development Block Grant from the CARES Act to rental assistance. The recurring federal Community Development Block Grant gives states flexibility to use the funds to expand economic opportunity for low-income communities through infrastructure development, rehabilitation projects and business revitalization.

But for this round, Reeves saw the greatest need among Mississippi’s low-income renters, thousands of whom face large rent debts after months without work due to the pandemic, even if they’ve since returned to their jobs. The assistance also stabilizes landlords, who might be struggling to pay mortgages due to the decline in collections.

“This has been an incredibly difficult time for so many families, and we want to provide some much needed help to get through. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right way to use these funds,” Reeves said in a statement to Mississippi Today Thursday evening.

The money will flow through the Mississippi Development Authority to the Mississippi Home Corporation, which already oversees the existing Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP).

A little less than a third of the state’s population — 915,000 people — live in Mississippi’s 352,000 renter households. A July study by global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross shows as high as 58% of those households were at risk of eviction. The national figure was about 43%.

READ MORE: More than half of Mississippi renters could face eviction during pandemic without protections from Congress.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a stop to some evictions and residential removals beginning Sept. 4 to the end of the year, but a renter must provide a declaration to their landlord or property manager, certifying that the order applies to them.

Mississippi Home Corporation already began administering $18 million in rental assistance over the summer from a pot of funds called the Emergency Solution Grants (ESG) program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Also a recurring grant, Emergency Solutions Grants are typically targeted to serve the homeless population and for rapid rehousing, which mean they have stricter regulations and eligibility criteria than other funding sources.

The federal housing authority offered states nearly $3 billion total in additional ESG funding due to COVID-19. Mississippi Home Corporation put the funds in the existing RAMP program, which three continuum of care agencies across the state are administering.

As of Sept. 11, the three organizations had received 2,460 calls for help, approved 404 for the program and obligated $1.01 million to aid those renters. 463 applications were still in process.

“Everyone is working as fast as they can and there are so many I’s to dot and T’s to cross,” said Mississippi Home Corporation Director Scott Spivey.

“A lot of these funds, the way the rules were written, the money is supposed to be spent on rapid rehousing for people who are homeless, not those in danger of getting kicked out of their apartment,” he said. “In a pandemic, you have to be flexible with those rules, but in government, flexibility and regulation do not go together. They’re oil and water.”

Of the 1,046 that were denied, which usually means they did not meet the income limit of earning under 50% of the median income in their local area, 433 qualified for other assistance and 613 did not.

In Jackson, a family of four would have to earn under $35,450 to qualify. The Community Development Block Grant will offer more flexibility with renter eligibility.

Spivey said his agency is already working on an online application for the program, so that when Mississippi Development Authority is finished negotiating the grant with the federal government, they can hit the ground running.

“When they’re ready to go, we’re ready to go, so it can be as fast as possible and reach as many people as possible,” Spivey said.

“People are behind on rent,” he added. “We’re working on programs and working on eligibility, between the governor, the Legislature, MDA, Mississippi Home Corporation, we’re all pulling in the right direction, trying to get people help.”

The city of Jackson also received a COVID-19 Emergency Solutions Grant of $575,228. It gave the entirety of the grant to the Salvation Army, minus administrative costs. Jackson is eligible to apply for an additional $1.4 million, a city spokesperson told Mississippi Today in mid-September.

Mississippians in need of rental assistance should contact the Continuum of Care program covering their region: Central Mississippi Continuum of Care (769-237-1012) covers Hinds, Rankin, Madison, Warren and Copiah counties; Open Doors Homeless Coalition (228-604-2048) covers Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone and George counties and Mississippi United to End Homelessness (601-960-0557) covers the rest of the state.

Read how to invoke the CDC’s eviction moratorium here.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.