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Rental assistance application deadline nears as demand for relief remains high

BY Sunday, January 16, 2022 06:09pm

West Michigan housing groups are still experiencing a steady flow of people who have been affected financially by the pandemic and are seeking rental relief through the state’s COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program.

The CERA program is administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and directed through various housing nonprofits across the state. Of 176,291 applications received since early 2021, the program has assisted 130,809 people with an average of $5,888 awarded per household.

Gustavo Perez COURTESY PHOTO

The CERA program is scheduled to end on Sept. 30, but MSHDA is advising that the deadline for relief applications will likely come near the end of the first or second quarter of 2022. With no signs of applications and the need for rent relief letting up, housing nonprofit leaders say the $700 million program will be exhausted. The program has awarded $483 million in relief as of Jan. 12.

Through CERA, tenants who qualify can receive back rent, three months of future payments and utility fees. People have also been able to re-apply for funds a second time, or “re-certify” for CERA funding.

“The return applicants have slowed down now, but in September and October we received about 1,500 applicants from people applying for additional assistance,” said Gustavo Perez, CERA program manager for Kent County at the Heart of West Michigan United Way. “We are trying to get people who are applying for the first time through and balance that with people who are applying for additional relief.”

Getting word out

Kent County is seeing 250 to 300 applications a week, Perez said. Housing organizations are working to target areas of Kent County where they haven’t seen as many applications to ensure people are aware of the program, he added.

“What (MSHDA) has been telling us is we’ll be able to get all the funding we need for the applications we get,” Perez said. “But they could potentially give us a date when they will stop accepting applications. We’re working diligently to process as many applications as we can.”

Kent County has awarded more than $30 million in rent relief under the program, and has another $10 million to spend by March, Perez said. A total of 9,829 people have received rent assistance in the county as of Jan. 12. 

“We didn’t see that big jump or surge in evictions we were anticipating when the moratorium ended because we felt we had met our goal ahead of that and prevented a lot of evictions,” Perez said. 

In Ottawa County, housing groups partnered with the court system to put CERA program information on eviction notices, said Laura Driscoll, director of housing services at Good Samaritan Ministries.

“The sheer number of people who have applied has really surprised me,” Driscoll said. “To know there are this many folks who are under major stress about whether they are going to be in their house next month is hard to live with.”

A total of 2,099 people in Ottawa County have received assistance from CERA, with $7 million in funding awarded as of Jan. 12. People from various backgrounds are applying for aid, including people who have never applied for any kind of rental assistance before, said Jessi Christensen, eviction response lead at Good Samaritan Ministries.

“We all really want this pandemic to be over, but it’s not over,” Christensen said. “Schools are sending students home, they don’t have enough staff because people are having to take days off. Jobs are still letting people go because they are missing too much work. Families we serve don’t have a lot of days off to take if they get COVID-19.”

Kalamazoo County has spent down $24 million of CERA funding so far, reaching a total of 7,262 people. 

Michelle Davis, executive director of Housing Resources Inc., said she’s never seen rental relief programs with this much funding or flexibility.

“With Kalamazoo County experiencing shortages at historic levels in housing, especially affordable housing, staying housed is the only way right now to prevent homelessness and keep everyone safe, healthy and housed,” Davis said. “These funds accomplish that for our community.”

The CERA program has received additional funding from the state Legislature multiple times over the course of the program, but housing leaders are preparing for it to eventually end at the current deadline in September this year.

“I don’t think we’ll have this amount of money again for eviction prevention,” Driscoll said. “We can all agree that experiencing homelessness is so traumatizing to go through, and I hope our community and the state continues to promote eviction prevention and put money toward that.”

For people who will need additional aid once the program ends, Perez said Kent County has been working to identify those families and connect them with other local aid programs.

“We’re working to come up with a referral system to streamline where individuals can go so they do not end up homeless,” Perez said. 

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