Hamilton County left the administration of COVID-19 rent relief to the state

Wyatt Massey, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read

Apr. 9—During the height of the winter coronavirus surge, Hamilton County elected not to administer special COVID-19 rent relief funds, instead opting to let the state administer those millions of dollars in economic aid available for struggling local residents.

Hamilton County renters can apply along with people across Tennessee for rent relief through the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the state already had a program to distribute funds, and he believed more money could flow into the county through the state-run program compared to if Hamilton County was given a special fund to administer.

"Ultimately, all we're trying to do is make it as simple as we can," Coppinger said. "[The state] was kind of the one-stop shop there, so our people are getting compensated who are entitled to it. And we're just trying to simplify the process so there's not so much bureaucracy or [red] tape."

Coppinger said he has heard of no problems with state administration of the program. But local advocates told the Times Free Press the statewide process is unclear, and few local residents are having success with it.

The county is facing a surge in homeless individuals, and there is growing fear about a wave of evictions for local residents.

The second coronavirus relief bill, passed in December 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, provided the U.S. Department of the Treasury with $25 billion to help households pay rent or utilities. Cities or counties with more than 200,000 people as of 2019 were eligible to receive funds for their residents. These requirements made Hamilton County eligible but Chattanooga, as a city, ineligible.

Residents in areas that did not apply for the funds or who live in ineligible areas could apply for relief through a state-run program.

Knox County, Memphis, Nashville, Rutherford County and Shelby County all applied for funds that could be used exclusively for their residents. For example, Knox County received $14.2 million and Rutherford County received nearly $10 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Hamilton County's population is between Knox and Rutherford counties, meaning its potential allocation would have been in a similar range given the Treasury Department's methodology.

Hamilton, Montgomery and Williamson counties were the only eligible counties in Tennessee that did not receive special funding.

Tennessee was given $457 million in total for the program. After removing the funds for some local governments, the state had $383.4 million to provide in rent or utility relief to residents through the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. People were eligible for the program if they made 80% or less than the median income of the county. In Hamilton County, the 80% threshold for a single-person household is $40,700 a year. For a four-person household, the threshold is $58,100.

In February, Coppinger encouraged residents to apply to the statewide program during a livestream about the coronavirus.

"We have a lot of people in our community that's been hit hard with this [coronavirus], maybe even lost their jobs or whatever and aren't able to pay rent," Coppinger said during the livestream. "And this is a program that's available through our state government."

Coppinger told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that he did not think the county should duplicate a program already available at the state level. He said he is not aware of local issues with the program.

"There wasn't a need for us to set something up differently," Coppinger said.

Up to 10% of the funds given to local or state governments could be used to administer the rent relief program. On Wednesday, the Times Free Press requested data from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency on how much money Hamilton County residents have received through the program. The data was not provided in time for publication.

Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said partner agencies she works with are struggling to get residents approved with the state program. Agencies in rural areas are not hearing back about applications. Applications from Hamilton County are being denied without explanation, Winters said.

If Hamilton County administered the program locally, it would be easier to understand why applications are being denied, such as a mistake on the application or something was misinterpreted, she said.

Hamilton County has faced extreme economic hardship from the coronavirus, including record-high unemployment and business closures. Last April, one in nine workers in Southeast Tennessee filed for unemployment.

Last month, the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition released data from its annual count of the area's homeless, which revealed an 81% increase in unsheltered individuals in Hamilton County, a jump from 201 in 2020 to 364 in 2021.

The latest $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill includes $21.6 billion for the Treasury Department to distribute for rent relief with similar guidelines. The relief bill requires the treasury to provide funds to eligible units of government before May 10.

Coppinger did not say whether the county will take a similar approach with this latest relief package and said each grant opportunity is reviewed individually.

Winters said local leaders need to recognize the struggles agencies are having with the state-run program.

"I really would hope that they would reconsider knowing that these are the complaints, that they would reconsider about managing it here locally rather than letting Nashville manage our money," Winters said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.