After fielding criticism from tenant advocates and landlords, the city of Spokane has loosened restrictions on access to rental assistance offered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, the Spokane City Council directed $1.34 million toward rental assistance from the city’s portion of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It tapped two nonprofits, Catholic Charities and the Spokane Workforce Council, to oversee the bulk of rental assistance distribution.
The Tenants Union of Washington State quickly criticized the conditions the city placed on access to the CARES Act rental assistance, which were more narrow than other forms of rental assistance the city funds.
For example, the program requirement that a landlord be based in Spokane proved to be a barrier to tenants who require a helping hand during the unprecedented economic fallout caused by the coronavirus.
The nonprofits are now urging people who need help to apply for assistance.
The city also adjusted the rental assistance funding formula, no longer requiring a landlord to forgive 20% of a tenant’s unpaid rent in order to be able to accept a grant for the other 80%. Landlords will now receive 100% of up to four months of missed rent.
“It’s not that the conditions weren’t logical; they just weren’t working in practice,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.
The tenants union has pointed out that many Spokane tenants live in properties owned by out-of-town landlords who would be ineligible for the program.
“I am happy the city removed the restriction of the residence of the landlord because far too many tenants would have been left out,” said Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the tenants union. “However, I do not think landlords who charge more than fair market rent should be paid 100% of rent.”
Nonprofit leaders welcomed the new conditions placed on rental assistance.
“The residency requirement was proving to be a pretty significant barrier,” said Shannon Boniface, director of St. Margaret’s Shelter at Catholic Charities.
The new standards better align with those set for other rental assistance programs, according to Spokane Workforce Council CEO Mark Mattke. The Spokane Workforce Council helps operate the Spokane Resource Center and oversees multiple forms of rental assistance on the city’s behalf.
“More importantly, it better meets the needs of the tenants and the landlords and property owners, so it’s not this confusing array of what you might qualify for versus another,” Mattke said.
Shortly after the programs launched, Beggs said the city quickly asked the nonprofits overseeing them to provide data on how the conditions were impacting access for landlords and tenants.
City Council members and administration officials agreed to loosen the requirements for three reasons, Beggs said. The nonprofits’ data showed that access was limited, that the conditions created confusion and that the city faces a tight Nov. 30 deadline to spend its CARES Act funds.
“Between those three things, we just decided that any utility of some of the conditions that would have kind of nudged it in a certain direction weren’t worth the obstacles and confusion,” Beggs said.
Renters have been given protections from eviction during the pandemic. Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on evictions that lasts through Oct. 15, and the Centers for Disease Control has ordered a halt on evictions. Still, the temporary stop on evictions does not prevent tenants from accruing back rent.
Spokane’s CARES Act rental assistance will pay up to four months of missed rent between April and Oct. 1. Previously, the assistance covered only 80% of the overdue rent, but it will now fund the full amount.
The money is paid directly to the landlord, not the tenant. As a condition of the assistance, landlords agree to not evict the tenant for the next six months and, for any months between April and October not covered by payment, the landlord must offer at least two months for the tenant to pay back every one month of missed rent.
To qualify, the tenant must be a resident of the city of Spokane and earn no more than 80% of the area median income.
Those in need of rental assistance can call Catholic Charities at (509) 325-5005 to schedule a telephone appointment or the Spokane Resource Center at (509) 867-8188.
Adam Shanks can be reached at (509) 459-5136 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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