Renters in Harrison and Hinds counties are not likely to suffer from Gov. Tate Reeves’ order this week to end access to a key pandemic-era rental assistance program 10 days from now.
Most Mississippians who need help paying their rent or utilities will no longer be able to apply to the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program after Aug. 15, after the governor ordered an end to the state’s participation earlier this week.
The governor’s proclamation is unlikely to affect those renters because those counties independently manage money from the Emergency Rental Assistance program and are not a part of the Mississippi Home Corporation’s statewide program. While other rental assistance programs remain available for certain emergency situations, like the Emergency Solutions Grant and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, none have the scope or funding of ERA or RAMP, which have helped tens of thousands of Mississippi families avoid imminent eviction during the pandemic.
Hinds County’s ERA program closed to new applicants in March 2022, with the remaining funds available to renters who had already applied. In Harrison County, ERA funds are set to remain available to new applicants after Aug. 15.
The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program, for applicants in every other Mississippi county, will disburse funds to approved applicants who apply by the deadline, after which the state will return the remainder of the $200 million in funds to the US Treasury. Successful applicants remain eligible for up to 15 months of assistance with rent payment or utility bills.
‘We Need To Make Hard Decisions’
At a Wednesday press event, the governor characterized the continuation of the program as a leftist plot. “The experimental socialist programs being pushed from Washington are not caring,” Reeves said. “They are cruel.”
“They trap Mississippians in a cycle of dependency, like a long shark or a bookie offering free cash and never mentioning the downsides,” he added.
Housing and renter advocates across the state quickly fired back. Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, released a statement lambasting the governor’s action. “This decision shows a complete disregard for people’s health and safety. Nearly one in three renter households in Mississippi is extremely low-income, and our state is short more than 48,000 affordable rental homes for extremely low-income renters,” her statement read in part.
Specifically, the governor questioned if such a program was necessary in the late pandemic period.
“This is a program that when initially started made sense, because many of these individuals lost employment through no fault of their own. … [I]n some areas, individuals lost employment because of the government and the decisions that they made. Now, in Mississippi, if you want to work, (the State) offers generous programs to pay for your training,” Reeves said.
Reeves acknowledged that his action was intended to press more Mississippians into the workforce. “We also know that we need to make hard decisions to improve our workforce participation rate. That’s what we’re doing here today,” he explained.
Additionally, the governor claimed that the second appropriation of money funding the program completely stripped all restrictions from the program. “The second tranche of funding does not require applicants to provide proof that they cannot pay their rent. (It) does not require them to provide proof that they cannot pay utility bills due to a hardship caused by COVID,” Reeves said. “Today, the program is essentially if, for whatever reason, you can’t or don’t want to pay your rent or utility bills, that taxpayers will pay them for you.”
The governor’s statement was wrong. The second “tranche” of funding, called the Emergency Rental Assistance program, or ERA 2, still requires applicants to provide income information and proof of economic hardship. ERA 2 guidelines still plainly state the necessity of “demonstrating a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability,” not merely a desire not to work or pay rent.
Most Recipients Already in Workforce
Just as importantly, a majority of ERA and RAMP recipients are actively working. Mary Simons is the executive director of the Open Doors Homeless Coalition, a Harrison County-based social services provider. Early in the pandemic, Open Doors earned the contract to manage and disburse ERA funds in Harrison County. In an interview after the governor’s announcement, Simons said the vast majority of applicants to Harrison County’s ERA program were already in the labor force.
“Eighty percent of the people are working, or (lost their jobs) and are actively looking for another job,” Simons said.
Of the remainder, this reporter asked, how many renters seeking assistance were disabled or elderly, renters for whom hardship prevented employment? “That entire 20%,” Simons said. “That 20% would be the people who are on a fixed income, who because of the pandemic had extra expenses. Now, with inflation where it is, that check can only go so far.”
“The Harrison County Emergency Rental Assistance program—during ERA 1—served over 1,600 families, and kept them in their homes at the worst of the pandemic,” Simons said. “We helped them get back on their feet through both rental assistance and case management. We spent a total of approximately $6.3 million on eligible expenses.”
In ERA 2, Simons continued, that number is 400 households and growing. ERA 2 money is paid out in increments, she explained. Harrison County renters and landlords have received $2.2 million so far, out of a total possible allocation of $4.9 million.
Simons confirmed that Open Doors Homeless Coalition would continue to process ERA 2 applications for landlords and tenants alike in Harrison County as long as the county itself continues to participate in the program.
Reeves, speaking at the press event, explained that the statewide RAMP program had assisted tens of thousands of households across the state.
“I would like to express my sincere thanks to everyone at the Mississippi Home Corporation for their excellence and professionalism in serving as the state administrator for the Emergency Rental Assistance program. Thanks to their efforts, Mississippi has obligated more than $200 million to assist over 36,300 households across our state during the pandemic,” Reeves said.