Funds

Shelby County emergency rental assistance program running out of funds

This story was originally published by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Subscribe to their newsletter here.”

In August, local officials announced the end of a massive, COVID-19 housing relief program as if it were inevitable. 

The federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance program, which covered back rent and overdue utility bills for low-income renters, would no longer accept applications because the local portion of funds was running out, said Ashley Cash, director for the Division of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis.

What Cash didn’t say was that there were millions more available to protect Shelby County residents from eviction, but her team had quietly decided not to apply for the additional funds released this fall. 

Ashley Cash, the incoming head of housing and community development for the city of Memphis.

The city-county decision came as tenants face rental rates 30% higher than pre-pandemic and inflation sends the cost of food and other living expenses soaring.

Since the start of COVID-19, there have actually been fewer filings for eviction, which increase renters’ blood pressure as well as their risk of sleeping in a homeless shelter or even dying by suicide. But because at least some of this decline can be credited to the ERA funds themselves, local officials’ choice to forego more of these funds is a puzzling one.Since August, the federal government has continued to reallocate hundreds of millions of dollars of ERA from cities and states with a surplus to those who could use more. The local version of the program — a city-county partnership — had received $72 million in previous reallocations. But when the federal government offered communities more rental assistance in recent months, the city-county leaders did not apply. 

Griffin

Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin, who leads the program from the county side, said the city and county didn’t apply so they could focus on spending their remaining funds by the Dec. 29 deadline that applies to most of them.

Cash gave similar reasoning, saying the local team — which has long been stretched thin — didn’t feel ready to apply for the extra funding, after discussions between “a collaboration of folks.” 

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