COVID-19 rental, utility assistance now available to Arkansans through DHS
May 31 - June 6, 2021
By Wesley Brown
Following a recent federal ruling that struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) nationwide COVID-19 eviction ban, the Arkansas Human Services is offering new pandemic assistance just in time to those behind on their rent or utilities.
Under President Joe Biden’s $2.2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act enacted into law on March 11, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories divide $25 billion through the U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. That program was first established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 signed into law by former President Donald Trump in late 2020.
In his weekly address last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted that DHS will distribute $173 million in assistance through the Arkansas Rent Relief Program. Hutchinson said DHS began accepting applications on Monday, and the program will remain open through the end of this year or until all funds are exhausted.
“The assistance will pay for unpaid rent going back twelve months and up to three months in the future, as well as utility bills and late fees. The money will not cover costs of telephones, cable television, internet access, or mortgage payments,” said Hutchinson. “Of course, landlords must agree that they won’t evict a tenant before they can receive the money.”
To qualify, a renter must be a resident of Arkansas and a U.S. citizen or legal resident with a current residential lease or rental agreement. Renters also must meet one of these three criteria to qualify for aid, including someone in their home qualifies for unemployment benefits; their household income decreased because of the pandemic; or someone in their home has incurred significant financial hardship because of the pandemic. In addition, the renter’s income must qualify for assistance under federal poverty rules.
Under the program, payments will go to landlords, but a tenant and a landlord each must apply. The payments will cover 15 months of rent and utilities that were not paid from April 1, 2020, through December 31 of this year. Residents of Pulaski, Benton and Washington counties, the state’s largest metropolitan service areas, must apply through their local county government. Renters and landlords can apply and find more information is available through DHS or online at ar.gov/rentrelief.
In a statement supporting the program, Entergy Arkansas reiterated that utility-only applicants do not need their landlord to apply. On May 3, the Arkansas Public Service Commission (PSC) announced that the state’s own COVID-19 disconnection moratorium in place since March 2020 ended on May 3, 2021.
Since then, consumers with past due balances are now receiving disconnection notices from their utility companies providing at least a 35-day grace period before shut-off notices will be sent. This applies to customers of Entergy, OG&E, SWEPCO, Liberty Utilities, CenterPoint Energy, Black Hills, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas, and the Electric Cooperatives.
“Entergy Arkansas customers who have outstanding bills should contact us online, through the Entergy app or by phone immediately to enroll in a payment plan and to avoid disconnection before it occurs,” Michael Considine, vice president of customer service for Arkansas’ largest electric utility that has over 700,000 customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties.
Hutchinson also highlighted other programs to help those in need due to COVID-19. He said the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has $1.7 million left over from CARES Act funding, the original $2.2 trillion COVID-19 emergency relief program first approved in March 2020 after the coronavirus arrived in Arkansas. That program allowed an extension to help those impacted by the winter storms earlier this year.
This program assists with gas and electric bills up to $500 per qualified household with priority given to applicants who did not receive assistance during the initial Winter Program. And DHS is also providing childcare assistance for nearly 8,000 families of essential workers without regard to income.
“No one has escaped the touch of the pandemic, and as much as we are able, we want to soften the blow for those who have suffered significant financial hardship,” said Hutchinson. “These programs will help thousands of Arkansans regain their footing.”
Arkansas now seeing flow of billions in American Rescue Plan dollars
Those millions of dollars in rental and utility assistance are in addition to nearly $1.8 billion that Arkansas was allocated last week through a different pool of COVID-19 emergency funds from the American Rescue Plan. Last week, the Biden administration stimulus package began delivering $350 billion for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and bring back local jobs across the U.S.
According to the Treasury Department’s breakdown of the emergency aid, all 50 states and the District of Columbia will each get direct payments from a pool of $195.3 billion, while counties and the nation’s largest cities will receive another $110.7 million. Tribal governments and U.S. territories will get access to $24.5 billion, and non-direct government entities and recipients will split the remaining $19.5 billion.
In Arkansas, although none of the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation voted for the Biden administration’s stimulus package, $1,573,121,580 began flowing into state budget coffers last week, according to DHS spokesman Scott Hardin.
Last week, Gov. Hutchinson created the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Steering Committee, led by DFA Director Larry Walther, to make recommendations on the distribution of approximately $1.57 billion in new COVID-19 funding in the state. Similarly, the CARES Act Steering Committee made recommendations and took requests for $1.25 billion that was approved under the earlier COVID-19 relief plan supported by ex-President Trump. The Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Steering Committee held its first meeting on May 19.
In addition to the nearly $1.6 billion that the state of Arkansas will receive, all 75 counties will also split a large pool of funding of several hundred million. As Arkansas largest county, Pulaski County will receive $76.12 million in emergency aid, followed by Benton County and Washington County receiving a total of $54.12 million and $46.45 million, respectively. The $65.1 billion allocated to every county in the U.S. is based on the total population estimates from 2019 Census Bureau data, Treasury officials said.
Also, 14 Arkansas largest metropolitan service areas (MSAs) will also receive a share of nearly $45.6 billion in funding set aside through the community development block grant (CDBG) program. According to the U.S. Treasury, 142 U.S. cities will receive such funding for coronavirus relief. As Arkansas largest city, Little Rock will receive the largest share of $37.71 million, followed by Springdale and Fort Smith at $21.35 million and $21.22 million, respectively. Jacksonville will receive the smallest share of $5.44 million. (See complete list here.)
The new COVID-19 assistance comes as an opportune time for many Arkansans still recovering from the impact of the pandemic. Incidentally, Gov. Hutchinson two weeks ago opted out of the federal supplemental unemployment assistance that offers state jobseekers an extra $300 per week during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment benefits were extended by the Biden administration in March until September 6 with a weekly supplemental payout of $300 on top of the regular $400 benefit. That program will end for Arkansas workers on June 26. (See story here at BlackConsumerNews.com.)
Federal court calls COVID-19 eviction ban “unlawful,” issues temporary stay
Also, a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Columbia on May 4 struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) nationwide eviction moratorium, saying it was unlawful and exceeded federal authority. After the ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice, under Attorney General Garland Merrick, immediately filed an appeal. The D.C. District Court then issued a temporary stay, meaning the CDC eviction ban stays in place until another hearing on the DOJ’s motion.
When the eviction moratorium was approved by Congress in early 2020 under the CARES Act expired last summer, the CDC acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and an executive order by former President Trump, implemented its own nationwide eviction moratorium.
That federal eviction ban applies to all residential rental properties nationwide, not just those receiving federal assistance. It also prohibits evictions based upon nonpayment of rent when, among other things, a tenant expects to earn less than $99,000 in income, would be homeless if evicted and is unable to pay full rent due to substantial loss of household income. Notably, the CDC moratorium does not purport to prohibit evictions based on other grounds, such as a tenant holding over after the expiration of a lease.
At least six lawsuits have arisen around the country challenging the CDC’s moratorium in federal court. The Georgia and Alabama state Realtors associations, part of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), along with two housing providers and their property management companies, filed the lawsuit in defense of property owners around the country struggling to pay bills without rental income. NAR supported the lawsuit and, separately, helped secure nearly $50 billion in rental assistance provided by Congress last year to help tenants pay their bills, saying the ban was no longer needed.
Prior to the expiration of the original CDC moratorium, Congress extended it by an additional 30 days. The CDC has since extended the moratorium itself twice, and the moratorium is currently set to expire on June 30, which would make the Biden’s administration’s appeal of the federal ruling moot if court does not make a final decision by then.
According to a report last month by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, those who have fallen behind at least three months on their mortgage increased 250 % to over 2 million households in 2020, and is now at a level not seen since the height of the Great Recession in 2010. Collectively, these households are estimated to owe almost $90 billion in deferred principal, interest, taxes and insurance payments, the report said.