‘We’ve worked out all the kinks,’ Louisiana rental assistance program official says

By: - August 6, 2021 6:15 am

Even though just a fraction of federal COVID-19 rental assistance money the state received has been disbursed to struggling Louisiana renters, Division of Administration Assistant Commissioner of Administration Desiree Honore Thomas said Thursday that she expects payments to go out sooner from here on out.

“We’ve worked out all the kinks,” Thomas said by phone. “When you set up anything new, you’re going to have some hiccups… I do think the processing time has decreased, as we’ve probably almost encountered every scenario.”

The statewide rental assistance program began in early March after Louisiana was allocated $309 million as part of a December 2020 COVID-19 relief package to assist struggling renters and landlords. Louisiana was allocated an additional $244 million from the American Rescue Act.

In June, about 319,000 Louisiana renters weren’t caught up with rent payments and about 266,000 renters said they had “no confidence” in their ability to make next month’s rent, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey data.

By July 21, just $10.1 million of the total $553 million had actually been disbursed to only 976 struggling renters and landlords, according to data from the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Two weeks later, the state has more than doubled the amount of rental assistance money disbursed, Thomas said. As of Thursday, she said, about $21 million in rental assistance had been disbursed to about 3,400 Louisiana renters, she said.

Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said in a phone interview last week the state’s rental assistance programs weren’t moving quickly enough because “the state’s local actors have not lived up to their end of the bargain.”

“All of the emergency rental assistance programs at every level… need to massively increase the staffing and resources dedicated to their programs” in order to disburse the resources that renters need in a timely manner, Hill said.

“These programs are going to be judged by how many people on the waitlist still end up on the street when the eviction moratorium expires,” she said.

Thomas said she disagrees that lack of staffing or resources is the reason rental assistance payouts have been slow. 

“The state side (of the rental assistance program) is fully staffed,” she said.

Thomas said the lack of payouts had more to do with how many more hoops applicants have to jump through in this rental assistance program.

For example, this year’s rental assistance program requires both the tenant and the landlord to turn in parts of the rental assistance application — including the landlord agreeing to forgive all accrued penalties and not to evict the tenant for at least 60 days — before the application can even go through the review process, Thomas said.

“That was pretty different, because normally when you apply for something… you don’t have to go find another party to say, ‘Is this okay or not?’ and so forth,” she said.

Thomas said payouts were also slow because many who were receiving weekly unemployment benefits had no need to apply for rental assistance. Weekly unemployment benefits in Louisiana ended July 31.

The state had already vastly sped up its rental assistance disbursement in the previous two months. About $17 million was disbursed in June and July, while only about $4 million was disbursed from March to April.

About 26,000 Louisianians have applied for rental assistance since the program began, Thomas said. About 10,000 of those applicants were missing information and have been or will be contacted by the division to complete the required application information. 

About 7,000 more were contacted about missing information but haven’t responded after more than two months. Fewer than 500 were rejected, and the rest of the applications were either approved or are in the process of being reviewed, Thomas said.

If a tenant and landlord submit all of the required information as perfectly as possible, then they should expect to receive rental assistance payouts in two or three weeks, she said.

“If you submit an application today, two weeks from now, if there’s been no kind of action, then someone’s going to reach out to you” about missing information, Thomas said.

She said “we’ve already seen a great spike in applications” after the CDC’s eviction moratorium expired July 31. The moratorium was effectively  reinstated three days later. Thomas said she expects more renters and landlords to apply for rental assistance in the coming weeks. “People did become aware that, ‘Hey, I could potentially be put out,” she said.

The new CDC eviction moratorium applies to counties with high or substantial rates of community COVID-19 transmission, or places with more than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.  More than 80% of U.S. counties meet that threshold, and all 64 parishes in Louisiana are listed by the state as being at “highest risk” of COVID-19 transmission.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.