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State has spent $10 million of $352 million in federal rent aid
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State has spent $10 million of $352 million in federal rent aid

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The state of Montana has distributed more than $10 million in federal COVID-related emergency rent and utility assistance grants to over 1,700 residents since April, the Department of Commerce announced Thursday.

The state's Emergency Rental Assistance Program provides grants to renters who have been economically impacted by the pandemic and fall below an income threshold. It went into effect in April, and followed a similar rental assistance program that distributed $8.4 million in emergency rent and mortgage assistance in 2020, Community Development Division Administrator Cheryl Cohen clarified in an email.

Despite $10.2 million having been provided to renters through the new program, $341.8 million still remains.

House Bill 630, which included stimulus money from the federal 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CARES II), included $183 million for the program. House Bill 3 included a $17 million in CARES II money for the program.

House Bill 632, the legislation that allocated money received by the state through the subsequent federal stimulus bill, the American Relief Plan Act (ARPA), included an additional $152.4 million for the program.

The CARES II funds are authorized through Sept. 30, 2022, while the ARPA funds are authorized through September 2025, according to the department.

Under federal guidelines, “90% of funds must be used for financial assistance like rent and utilities,” Cohen wrote in an email response to questions. “The remaining 10% of funds can be used for housing stability services and administrative costs."

Cohen also said the commerce department is working with the Department of Public Health and Human Services on an agreement to make the emergency rental assistance money available for "housing stability services" to maximize the use of the federal money.

The commerce department’s press release noted that another 1,000 applications for housing assistance are currently being reviewed.

The program crafted to distribute federal rental assistance in 2020 had initially required that landlords sign off on renters’ applications for relief funds, which critics contended was part of the reason for the slow rollout of relief money. While the department is required to attempt to reach out to the landlord multiple times after receiving an application, the state is able to ultimately provide assistance directly to the renter without landlord approval, Cohen said. That provision is new from the initial program in 2020, which required a landlord to engage in the process.

Renters can get up to $2,200 per month for rent payments, up to $300 for past due and future utility bills and up to $50 per month for internet. Relief payments can apply retroactively to rent or utility bills going back to April 1, 2020.

Under the current program, recipients have gotten an average of $5,700, according to the department. The previous program averaged $3,392.

For more information or to apply for rental assistance funds, visit housing.mt.gov.

Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a temporary ban on residential evictions through July 31, 2021. The department added in its press release that it is working with the Montana Legal Services Association to offer legal assistance to Montanans facing evictions related to the pandemic.

For more information on the Montana Eviction Intervention Project, visit montanalawhelp.org or call 1-800-666-6899.

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