Ohio meets deadline for COVID-19 rental assistance money

Ohio has been trying to spend all its COVID-19 rental assistance money by a Sept. 30 deadline.
Ohio has been trying to spend all its COVID-19 rental assistance money by a Sept. 30 deadline.

Ohio is on its way to spendingroughly $560 million in COVID-19 rental assistance money, which the state had been slow in putting that money into the hands of renters.

The deadline for Ohio to use its portion of the money passed last Friday, and the Ohio Department of Development did not respond by Friday. But a U.S. Treasury official confirmed that Ohio was already on its way to spending its allocation as soon as the end of last March.

The emergency rental assistance program was set up by Congress last year to help those who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and were behind on rent.

More than two years after the onset of the pandemic, the need for rental help persists. In August, 63% of 270,000 Ohio renters surveyed said they were very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months, according to a U.S. Census survey. More than 60% said they did not apply for rental assistance.

"Eviction filings are rising – currently about 88% of pre-pandemic levels. Unsheltered homelessness in many areas appears to be increasing, too," said Marcus Roth, with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. "Given all the economic upheaval and rent inflation over the past few years, those numbers would certainly be much higher if we didn’t have ERA."

Ohio slow to get money into hands of renters

Ohio ranks among the bottom 13 states for the percentage of rental assistance money distributed, according to the latest federal data posted in June. After transferring $100 million to local governments, Ohio still has yet to distribute about 66% of its emergency rental assistance money.

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Instead of distributing the funds itself, Ohio took its portion and tasked community action agencies – local organizations assisting those in poverty – with getting the money to those in need. But red tape, understaffing and the huge influx of money left agencies overwhelmed in the beginning, many chose to spend local governments' share of emergency rental assistance money first.

Over the past two years, the state and community action agencies have increased the pace of distributing funds. As of June, more than 220,000 Ohioans have been helped.

"A number of agencies are out or very, very close to being out of ERA money," said Phil Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies. "The state has done a fantastic job at trying to move resources from agencies that may have appeared to have had extra resources to those agencies which were exhausting their resources."

Ohio transfers $20 million more to local governments

More recently, Ohio has been able to transfer about $40 million more of its rental assistance dollars to local governments, including $20 million to Columbus and Franklin County and at least $15 million to Cincinnati and Hamilton County, according to the Treasury.

Many agencies are not able to exhaust the dollars right now, said Cole, given the money is also used to hire people and run the rental assistance program. The second portion of emergency rental assistance dollars still needs to be distributed, so the infrastructure still needs to be maintained.

None of Ohio's dollars are going back to the federal government, which is reallocating any unobligated dollars to faster-spending governments for use until the end of the year. However, some local governments within Ohio may have to return some money.

Housing advocates are urging quick approval for the second portion of emergency rental assistance money. Over $300 million of it still needs to be greenlit by state lawmakers by the end of the year for distribution or it could be clawed back by the feds, said Roth.

Titus Wu is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio meets deadline for COVID-19 rental assistance money