Front Range Housing Nonprofits See Requests For Rent Assistance Soar
Gia Heflin is making more calls than ever these days.
Headset on, she sits at a temporary desk near the front entrance of Neighbor to Neighbor, a local housing nonprofit based in Fort Collins. One by one, she dials cooks, housekeepers and cashiers—all people who have applied for temporary rental assistance through the organization’s website.
“How are you?” Heflin asks her first client of the day, pausing to listen to the woman on the other end of the line. Helfin is the organization’s lead housing counselor.
“Stressed,” the woman replies. She lost most of her housekeeping contracts due to the coronavirus. Now rent was due and her landlord had posted a demand letter on her front door.
“I know it’s all too much. I got you girl,” Heflin says, typing notes on her computer as she listens. “Let’s try to take care of this rent, okay? Let’s try. Let’s try.”
Over the past few months, Neighbor to Neighbor has seen the number of applicants in its rental assistance program skyrocket. In May alone, the organization distributed more than $140,000—far above its $19,000 monthly average.
Staff say even though parts of Colorado’s economy are reopening, the damage from coronavirus-related shutdowns is far from over. As renter protections expire and federal unemployment benefits reach their end date, they say temporary rental assistance is the last line of defense against homelessness for some families.
“We need people to be able to be whole and their balances paid,” said Kelly Evans, Neighbor to Neighbor’s executive director. “We don’t need people to rack up their extreme debt in their housing where people aren’t going to be in a better position to pay in three months.”
Early on in the pandemic, Evans was in favor of an eviction moratorium. But now, the state needs to look toward a more sustainable solution to help families in Northern Colorado navigate the economy, she says.
“The data is really clear: when you’re able to help people pay their rent, they’re able to focus on their other challenges,” Evans said.
Applicants to Neighbor to Neighbor’s program can apply a total of three times. A maximum of $750 is granted after a short telephone interview and review of the client’s financial information.
According to program data, the organization has seen an uptick in first-time housing assistance applicants and undocumented people—and the pace of requests isn’t slowing down. Evans says she’s doubled her counseling staff to keep up with demand.
“Right now, we’re forecasting that we’ll stay at those levels until 2021, unfortunately,” she said.
‘A tsunami of need’
Neighbor to Neighbor is far from the only nonprofit seeing a spike in demand.
The Greeley Family House, which helps families in Weld County, has seen more requests for rental, food and transportation assistance since the start of the pandemic.
Director Nancy Wiehagen says most of the 46 families they serve in transitional housing have seen a reduction in work hours. She’s worried late summer will be an even tougher time for low-income workers.
“Once the extra unemployment benefits go away and the hours don’t pick back up, we’re prepared that we’re going to get a rash of families again,” Wiehagen said.
In Adams County, Maiker Housing Partners got a $300,000 infusion from the county government in April to help with rental assistance.
Since then, they’ve distributed money from that fund and other federal government aid to 88 households, averaging $1,750 per family.
“Obviously, the need is intense,” LaFari said.
He says his organization is also bracing for an influx of demand once renter protections and expanded unemployment aid end in July.
“We realize there’s a tsunami of need coming,” he said.
On the lawn outside of Neighbor to Neighbor’s office in Fort Collins, staff have set up a clothing drive for their clients. Families are picking from neatly-folded piles of t-shirts, pants and shoes donated from the community.
Veronica Aguilar is here with her son, Enobi, who's holding up a pair of flip flops for his brother.
“Mommy, would these fit Isaac?” he asks.
“Isaac? No, they’re too big for Isaac,” she replies.
Aguilar had just enrolled in cosmetology school when the pandemic hit. All her classes got cancelled. And because she’s a student, she hasn’t been able to apply for unemployment.
Without Neighbor to Neighbor’s help, Aguilar says she and her five kids might be homeless right now.
“Right now, I’m stuck because I have to finish what I started,” she said. “After COVID-19 is done, I’ll be able to finish my tests and be able to work after that.”
But Neighbor to Neighbor’s grants can only go so far. Gia Heflin says she expects a spike in evictions - and homelessness - once families exhaust their options for rental assistance.
“I really think August is gonna be tough,” Heflin says. “If they don’t extend this eviction moratorium, if they don’t give any more stimuluses, August is gonna be tough for a lot of people and a lot of businesses.”
State lawmakers recently passed an extra $20 million in CARES Act funding, specifically to help prevent evictions. Some of that money will go directly to organizations like Neighbor to Neighbor to help Coloradans weather the economic storm in the months ahead.