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Mountain West States Slow To Aid Tenants As Evictions Resume

Dennis Swanson/Dennis M. Swanson - stock.adobe.com

News Brief

The stakes have risen sharply to get rental assistance aid to struggling Americans on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ends the national eviction moratorium. As eviction proceedings resume, states in the Mountain West are scrambling to approve hundreds of millions of dollars allocated through recent federal pandemic relief packages.

“Eviction courts are now open for business,” said Colorado attorney Zach Neumann, co-founder of the nonprofit COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.

Neumann says he is fielding an uptick in calls from renters who have struggled to navigate the patchwork of state and federal protections "that were stronger and weaker at various points in the year."

The federal moratorium enacted last September provided renters financially reeling from the pandemic with some security. The repeal of that protection means thousands in the Mountain West could face evictions.

In Colorado, roughly 43,000 people already behind on rent or mortgage payments self-report being at risk of eviction or foreclosure, according to an August U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. That's 31% of Coloradans surveyed, the highest rate in the region. Nearly a quarter of Idahoans also report the imminent risk of eviction.

Meanwhile, states have been slow to distribute federal funds to renters seeking assistance. Colorado has approved or paid just 17% of its Emergency Rental Assistance funds, according to data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Across the region, only Utah has a rate above 20%, while Arizona, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming remain in the single digits.

Neumann blames an onerous application process that requires documentation from both tenant and landlord. The Treasury Department announced last week new policies, including less paperwork, to expedite payments. Those changes are promising, Neumann says, but it is a race against the clock as evictions resume.

At the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, Neumann and his colleagues have set up a rental assistance fund which they operate using a line of credit. In contrast, public entities, such as the state programs approving emergency funds, have been unable to take that kind of risk.

“They need to get every document in the door and the bar for collecting documents is high,” he said.

The systems to manage those documents, a quick payment process, and vigilant people overseeing every detail are also crucial.

"When you do this at scale and you can't avail yourself of the flexible tools like a smaller nonprofit can, it makes it really tough to move money.”

Neumann says the inefficiencies in distributing rent assistance reflect the widespread need to create “a better system for getting people money in a crisis.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.