Leaders managing Mississippi's rental assistance program are working to more effectively get the federal money to tenants and landlords. (Photo credit: Julia James)

The program distributing federal rental assistance dollars in Mississippi has significantly increased the amount of money it is paying out to landlords and tenants after a slow start last year. 

Mississippi received $186 million in rental assistance funds from a December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill. As of Jan. 31, the state has obligated $110.3 million to landlords and renters in need, according to the Mississippi Home Corporation.

The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP), managed by the Mississippi Home Corporation, exists to pay the rent and utilities of tenants who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and whose total household income is under 80% of their county’s median income. 

Last summer, Scott Spivey, director of the Home Corporation, described the influx of cash as like “drinking from a firehose.” But eight months later, fewer Mississippians are at risk of eviction or foreclosure, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and advocates say the program has made some meaningful improvements. 

“When we first started working on this program, I was receiving multiple calls a day (seeking help with applications),” said Matthew Campbell, a field organizer with the NAACP. “I haven’t received nearly as many calls as I used to…which is of course a good thing. Hopefully, that signifies that people aren’t having as many problems, which I don’t believe they are.” 

Rivers Ormon, communications officer for the Mississippi Home Corporation, said this increase is the result of changes made several months ago having time to take effect. Those changes include: 

  • Changing the application process to allow individuals in 50 counties to apply without income documentation
  • Partnerships with housing counseling agencies and community leaders
  • A statewide advertising campaign to inform renters and landlords about the program
  • In-person rental assistance fairs to walk people through the application process
  • Contracting with a third-party payment processor
  • Making a paper application available for individuals with unreliable internet access

Multiple advocates noted the changes made to the paper application, which Campbell called a “good faith effort” to streamline the process and make it easier for people to apply. However, applicants who fill out the paper application have had a harder time getting information on the status of their application, according to Gwen Bouie-Haynes, director of the National Association of Social Workers, Mississippi Chapter. She said this is because applicants who utilized the paper application are reaching out to the call center for information and sometimes get put on hold for hours. 

Ormon said the average hold time over the last few months ranged from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, but that a change made last week got the wait time down to five minutes on Friday. The change redirects calls related to recertification, or applying for additional funds due to continued financial hardship, to a third-party contractor who is handling that portion of the application process.

Applicants are also experiencing significant wait times between approval and payment, advocates say. 

Antwan Bragg, a landlord in Winston county, applied to RAMP in September 2021 and got approved in November, but is still waiting on his payment.

“It’s not (the tenants’) fault,” Bragg said. “All of my tenants are really good people and prior to the pandemic they were never late, took really good care of the place, but they all lost their jobs. They got on unemployment at first but then they cut their unemployment off and that’s when things got kinda dicey.” 

Bragg said he didn’t want to go through the hassle of evicting his tenants if there was a better option, but has now told them he’s giving RAMP to the end of March before he begins eviction proceedings. 

Diane Standaert, senior vice president at the Hope Policy Institute, said she hears similar stories with issues of timeliness of payment once applicants are approved.

”Thankfully, there are many times where once these situations are escalated, they are able to get resolved on a case by case basis,” Standaert said. “We’re thankful for that responsiveness, so it becomes, how do we increase that responsiveness across the board to reduce the amount of tension?” 

Ormon said the average processing time from approval to payment is two weeks if account information is correct, and that this can take longer if a check is going through the mail. She said if payments are taking months, there is another issue. 

While more money is going out to those who need it, the number of applicants who are denied has doubled from October 2021 to January 2022, with 14% of applications rejected, Standaert said.

Of the applicants approved to receive RAMP funds, 66% were employed, and the majority are Black and female, according to the program.

When discussing next steps to continue to improve the program, Bouie-Haynes suggested expanding the partnerships with housing counseling agencies to provide more direct assistance to applicants. 

“I look at it from this lens — social work professionals are out in the community on a regular basis and would likely have the skills to help process applications,” she said. “If you get more nonprofits involved, then that tends to spread the accessibility issue that I talked about, meaning that you would have a wider reach and more people would be getting the help they need.”

Ormon said training for new providers is ongoing. 

Campbell is working to expand housing assistance infrastructure beyond RAMP, using other stimulus funds to build affordable housing and create eviction diversion programs. 

”The most important thing now is not only that this money is continued to be spent in a positive way, making sure that households receive this rental assistance aid, but I also think that there is another opportunity to take this work around affordable housing even further with these (federal relief) funds,” he said. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to. It’s a once in a lifetime investment to really make some positive, constructive changes in people’s lives, and it takes a concerted effort from pretty much every unit of government to meet those needs.”

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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.