The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium starting Sept. 4 caused at least one unintended consequence: Most renters were then no longer deemed at a great enough risk of homelessness to qualify for the only rental assistance program available at the time.
Now, the nonprofits running the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP) have shut off the program altogether until the moratorium lifts. Scott Spivey, Mississippi Home Corporation director and chair of the National Council of State Housing Agencies, said the state’s local housing partners have stopped offering rental assistance with their federal Emergency Solutions Grant, through which the state received $18 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the pandemic, because of guidance from the federal agency.
HUD did not respond to questions in several phone messages and emails.
But the moratorium never guaranteed that evictions would cease to occur during the pandemic because renters had to first be aware of the federal order, meet several requirements to qualify and provide a declaration to their landlord before potentially going to court. Even then, a judge might not honor it.
Meanwhile, housing hangs in the balance for hundreds of thousands of Mississippians as rent debts continue to pile up. Officials estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 families in renter households across the state were at risk of eviction and that past due rent could reach as high as $225 million in January, according to a September report global advisory firm Stout conducted for the National Council of State Housing Agencies.
There are two other pots of money Mississippi can still use for rental assistance, but programs to administer those funds have not begun. These funds would not have the same restrictions as the Emergency Solutions Grant and could be used during the moratorium, Spivey said.
Only about $13 million in pandemic relief has been used to alleviate this burden on renters in Mississippi so far, though $276 million has been allocated or made available for this use.
A new relief bill Congress passed last month extended the moratorium, which was set to expire at the end of December, to Jan. 31. President-elect Joe Biden has announced plans to request another extension. Because many tenants haven’t been able to secure rental assistance — such as the roughly 6,700 people RAMP has turned away — their debt will be waiting for them when the ban lifts. When it does, state law permits landlords to begin kicking out delinquent tenants immediately.
Mississippi Center for Justice is helping provide resources to renters who have gotten behind on rent, such as whether the moratorium applies to them, how to invoke it and where to apply for assistance through a hotline that may be reached at 228-702-9983.
Here is the status of each program designed to help renters during the pandemic:
Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP) – $3 million/$18 million
Mississippi received $18 million in pandemic relief funds through the existing Emergency Solutions Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which it started administering through the RAMP program in July. Due to stiff federal guidelines and strict eligibility, the funds have been awarded slowly, just about $3 million in the first six months. By January, officials had suspended the program until the moratorium lifts.
Mississippi Rental Assistance Grant Program – $13.5 million/$20 million (CLOSED)
The Mississippi Legislature allocated $20 million in rental assistance grants to be administered by the Mississippi Development Authority and awarded to property owners as opposed to tenants. The money, which came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, had to be spent by the end of 2020. Beginning in November, the agency approved applications for 4,363 units and awarded $9.7 million in residential grants and $3.8 million in grants for commercial properties. The program has concluded, MDA spokesperson Melissa Scallan told Mississippi Today.
Community Development Block Grant funds – $0/$38 million
Mississippi received an additional $38 million in Community Development Block Grant funds during the pandemic and Gov. Tate Reeves told Mississippi Today in October he would commit the entire amount to rental assistance. The program has yet to begin, Spivey said, as local agencies await federal guidance.
December COVID relief package – $0/$200 million
Under the new stimulus package Congress passed Dec. 20 and President Donald Trump signed Dec. 27, Mississippi is eligible to receive about $200 million out of $25 billion for rental assistance. The program has yet to begin.