After bumpy start, agency officials say use of $40M rent, utility aid increasing

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Caption

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Thousands of area households still need help.

The local agency with access to $40 million in rental and utility assistance for area residents impacted by the coronavirus pandemic has gotten less than 10% of that aid to people who need it.

Leaders of the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership said the nonprofit is working to overcome obstacles that slowed getting those federal assistance dollars out the door and that the pace has picked up.

Miami Valley Community Action Partnership has provided 686 households with rent and utility assistance totaling more than $3.2 million from the beginning of this year through Sept. 30 in Montgomery, Greene, Darke, Preble and Warren counties. The numbers of clients increased every month.

Several people have contacted the Dayton Daily News in recent weeks complaining about difficulty getting through to MVCAP.

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Leatrice Jacko said she applied Sept. 6 for rental assistance after losing income because she is a home health aide and the person she cared for got sick. She got help from families and area charities, but weeks later, she’s heard nothing from MVCAP.

“They’re not responding within 10 days like they say,” she said. “I think it’s because so many people need the help, they must be short staffed.”

MVCAP officials say Jacko’s application is processing. Also, staffing has been an issue.

“Like many organizations, our team is navigating multiple obstacles including difficulty filling open positions, transitioning to and maintaining efficient processes during remote working, and illness among staff and their families,” MVCAP Executive Director Lisa Stempler said.

The roughly $15 million in assistance the agency has processed since the pandemic started nearly two years ago is a huge increase from its average of $137,000 a year, she said.

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The agency increased staff devoted to that program from three people to 20, as well as contract workers and more than 40 volunteers through partner organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul and East End Community Service.

“We’ve got everybody and anybody we can helping us,” said Stempler. “Our staff is killing themselves. They are turning themselves inside out and upside down to do this work under the most difficult of circumstances. I hate the notion that people think we’re not doing everything we can to make this happen.”

MVCAP’s offices have been closed to the public since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and multiple people have complained to the Dayton Daily News about difficulty reaching someone for help.

A Dayton Daily News reporter recently stopped by MVCAP’s office on Main Street in Dayton. A sign on the door directs clients to fill out forms provided in the lobby and drop them in a drop box, and lists phone numbers they should call.

Caption
A Dayton Daily News reporter recently stopped by MVCAP’s office. A sign on the door directs clients to fill out forms provided in the lobby and drop them in a drop box, and lists phone numbers they should call.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

A Dayton Daily News reporter recently stopped by MVCAP’s office. A sign on the door directs clients to fill out forms provided in the lobby and drop them in a drop box, and lists phone numbers they should call.
Caption
A Dayton Daily News reporter recently stopped by MVCAP’s office. A sign on the door directs clients to fill out forms provided in the lobby and drop them in a drop box, and lists phone numbers they should call.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Brenda Badgett contacted the Dayton Daily News in early October as she faced eviction from her home near Miami Valley Hospital after applying for help from MVCAP since August. She provided email communication with the agency from September saying she was calling the agency every day and could not reach anyone.

“I have two applications in because I thought they didn’t get the first one, but nobody has contacted me,” she said in an interview.

Badgett said last week that MVCAP did process her application, but she was still evicted because her landlord refused the agency’s money. She said MVCAP then helped her with a check to pay for moving expenses.

Email hotline set up

MVCAP officials say they are overwhelmed with phone calls, but anyone who emails help@mvcap.com can expect a response within about three to five days. They are prioritizing applications from customers who have received eviction notices or emergency disconnect notices.

Three eligibility requirements must be met for the program:

  • Household income must be at or below 80% of the area median income. For Montgomery and Greene counties, this is $60,550 for a family of four.
  • One or more members of the household must have qualified for unemployment in 2020 or 2021, or experienced a financial loss or costs due directly or indirectly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • One or more members of the household must be able to demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability, such as a past-due rent or utility notice.
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The economy is improving, but MVCAP Vice President Erin Jeffries said many people are still experiencing lingering effects from the pandemic.

“If at any point someone during this pandemic experienced a hardship, we can use this funding to assist them,” she said. “Because what we’re seeing is that it takes a long time for people to get back on their feet after they lost their hours or they lost their income last year. Maybe they seem a little more stable currently than they were last year, but they still are definitely catching up and still may need some rental and utility assistance in order to do that.”

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MVCAP partners with other area agencies to meet this need, agency officials said. This includes contracting with St. Vincent de Paul for positions to help with rental and utility assistance, working with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality to help people facing eviction, and working with other agencies to provide case management.

To help focus on processing rental assistance for people with active eviction cases, MVCAP’s legal clinic has stopped taking applications for other services like helping reinstate drivers licenses or sealing criminal records.

Federal lawmakers gave unprecedented amounts of money to local governments and agencies to provide rental and utility assistance in response to the coronavirus pandemic. MVCAP received access to roughly $40 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act this year.

Montgomery County has received another $22 million. The county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program this year has spent $7.3 million providing assistance to 1,960 households in partnership with local agencies such as Homefull and the Salvation Army, according to county officials.

The Dayton Daily News recently reported that one county program, in partnership with Kettering Municipal Court, has intervened to prevent evictions for more than 110 households in Centerville, Kettering, Moraine and Washington Twp.

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‘We’re getting the job done’

Statewide, the Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $564.8 million to help with rent, utilities and housing stability. Ohio passes the funds along to community action agencies as they use it. In the first two quarters of this year — the most recent statewide data available — 13,079 households were assisted statewide, according to the Ohio Department of Development.

Phil Cole, director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, said across Ohio agencies like MVCAP are heroically overcoming the same challenges: difficulty finding and keeping staff, and getting applicants to provide necessary documentation in a timely fashion.

Federal guidelines allow agencies to accept self-attestations if people can’t get the documentation, but Cole said many agencies are accepting that only as a last resort for fear of giving money to ineligible participants.

The Dayton Daily News earlier this year reported that MVCAP last year distributed federal funds to the owners of ineligible properties or to landlords who allegedly didn’t pass it along to tenants. Those payments are still being reviewed and investigated by state and federal officials.

“The most important thing is the number of people helped, and are we meeting the need,” Cole said. “You’re not seeing big numbers of people being evicted or utilities shut off.

“We’re getting the job done,” he said.

MVCAP wasn’t able to start spending down the $40 million until March and has until September 2022 to spend it. Other funding sources helped provide rental and utility assistance last year and early this year.

The agency provides other services as well. They helped 698 households with air conditioning bills and A/C units this summer, provided more than $1 million in mortgage and utility assistance to homeowners, and provided emergency shelter and transitional housing in Greene County this year.

Jeffries said she doesn’t have exact figures on how many COVID-related rent and utility aid applications MVCAP currently has in its queue because they come from a variety of sources. But she says thousands of area households need help.

How long it takes to process an application depends largely on how long it takes the applicant and landlord to provide accurate documentation, she said. Once all of that is in, it takes about two weeks to process the payments, she said.

“Our team and our partners continue to process applications as quickly as possible to meet the unprecedented need in the community,” she said.

Lurvie Pendergrass of Dayton said she is grateful for help she received from St. Vincent de Paul. She said she is $1,000 behind on her rent and has applied to MVCAP for help, but hasn’t heard anything back and can’t reach anyone. She said she contracted COVID a few months ago.

“I had to use my money for medicine instead of paying my rent,” she said. “I don’t understand why the wait list is so long … I’m struggling so daggone bad.”

Staff Writer Nick Blizzard contributed to this report.


To apply for rent or utility assistance from Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, either:

1. Visit the agency website at www.miamivalleycap.org and click on the “COVID Relief” button at the top of the home page.

2. Pick up and drop off paper applications at any MVCAP office location lobby during business hours. Visitors to Preble County should call ahead at 937-456-2800.

If you have already applied for MVCAP assistance and receive an eviction notice: Email help@mvcap.com with “Eviction Hearing Scheduled” in the subject line, and your information and eviction date and case number in the email body.

If you have already applied for MVCAP assistance and receive a utility shutoff notice: Email Help@mvcap.com with “Disconnect notice” in the subject line, and your information and utility account information in the email body.

For referral to other social service programs, including Montgomery County’s rental assistance program: Call the United Way Helplink hotline at 211.

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