Volunteers assist tenants with submitting applications to the RAMP program at the Rental Assistance Fair at the Trade Mart Center on July 23, 2021. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

With the federal eviction moratorium ending on Saturday, concern is growing around the rental debt in the state of Mississippi. 

New data published by the New York Times estimates that 23.2% of renters in Hinds County owe some amount of back rent. Most counties in Mississippi are in a similar position. 

To address this rental shortfall, the December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill provided $25 billion for rental assistance across the country, of which Mississippi received $186 million (Harrison and Hinds counties each received an additional $7 million). The statewide program, Rental Assistance for Mississippians (RAMP), is being administered by the Mississippi Home Corporation. 

Mississippi Today reported last month that RAMP had distributed just $3 million or 1.7% of its allotment. One month later, they more than tripled that number to $11.6 million, or 6.2% of the total allotment. 

Mississippi Home Corporation Director Scott Spivey attributed this increased disbursement to a streamlining of the application process and efforts to increase awareness of the program. 

While this progress has provided assistance to more families, Sara Miller of the Hope Policy Institute pointed out that “most of those funds have remained unspent.” Miller continued, “We’re concerned because of the mismatch, all of those funds remain available and yet so many people haven’t been able to access them and will be at risk of eviction in a couple of days.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled at the end of June that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority in extending the moratorium repeatedly, placing the onus on Congress to provide further extensions. President Joe Biden asked Congress on Thursday to extend the moratorium, but it is unlikely action will be taken before the current moratorium expires. 

While the eviction moratorium has provided assistance to some tenants, evictions have never stopped during the pandemic. According to the Hope Policy Institute, around 300 evictions were filed in Hinds county just this month. 

The moratorium could only provide protection to those who knew to ask for it, with tenants having to file an eviction protection declaration with their landlord to be eligible. Miller also pointed out that the moratorium didn’t necessarily cover everyone who could be at risk of eviction. Despite this, she still felt that extending the moratorium would be beneficial for tenants to “provide some protection from a looming crisis of evictions.” 

“We’re hoping that the (RAMP) program administrators, court staff, and community organizations can work together to have an outreach process for people that are in immediate risk, and a path for court staff to acknowledge when people have applied for rental assistance and are just waiting on payment,” Miller said.

One of the key ways to get RAMP funds into the hands of tenants is by partnering with local organizations that can more easily pinpoint needs, according to Miller. The Home Corporation has made strides in pursuing this avenue, sharing a map on the RAMP website that shows local nonprofits that have agreed to help tenants submit applications and collect proper documentation. 

“Evictions have far-reaching effects on our communities beyond just the people directly affected — who would carry deep scars for a long time from the process and would be affected in their ability to get housing in the future — but we also know it’s not good for the whole community to have so many folks evicted,” Miller said. “The magnitude of the problem is greater than we can comprehend.”

To apply for rental assistance through the RAMP program, visit ms-ramp.com. If you live in Harrison County, you may also contact the Open Doors Homeless Coalition at 228-604-8011. For rental assistance in Hinds County, visit hindsrentalaid.com or call 601-514-0137.

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.