More Coloradans applied for rental assistance in January than residents received during the previous eight months combined.
The two housing programs run out of Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs are the Property Owner Preservation Program, or POP, which allows landlords to apply on behalf of their tenants, and the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, or EHAP, which allows renters to apply directly to the state.
“We served over 16,000 households in 2020 in response to the pandemic, and we already have nearly 14,000 requests in January,” said Alison George, director of the Colorado Division of Housing, in a written statement. As of Jan. 25, the division had 10,000 applications waiting to be processed, according to George. She added that the requests made in January were more than doubled what was awarded in eight months of last year.
“We distributed about $35 million last year and we’ve already received $42 million in housing assistance requests through POP and EHAP in January alone,” George said.
In 2020, 766 landlords were approved for the state’s POP program, which provided assistance for 11,700 households. Colorado housing officials say the overwhelming increase in rental assistance requests in 2021 is due to a combination of factors, including the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium, increased outreach efforts and a more accessible online application.
Approximately 36.4% of Colorado adults are currently living in households that are not current on their rent or mortgage payments and where eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very likely or somewhat likely, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. More than 30% of adults are having difficulty paying for usual household expenses.
“At this point, we have applications from every county, except for 10,” George said. “So, that’s significant.”
Andrew Paredes, director of the state’s Office of Housing Finance and Sustainability, said during a Strategic Housing Working Group meeting on Jan. 21 that the more than doubling of assistance requests for the state’s EHAP program and homeless prevention services is due, in part, to the expiration of Colorado’s eviction ban, which quietly lifted on New Year’s Day.
The main difference between Colorado’s eviction moratorium and the federal one — which was extended until March 31 by President Joe Biden — is that the state’s ban shielded financially-affected renters with month-to-month or expiring leases from being evicted. The federal moratorium does not.
Gov. Jared Polis on Saturday extended an executive order banning landlords from charging tenants forthcoming or accrued late fees for missed rent that occurred after Oct. 16. The order now extends until at least the end of February.
Increase in requests due to better marketing, more accessible online application
Both George and Paredes said that part of the significant increase in the EHAP program is due to better accessibility and an increase in general awareness around the state’s housing assistance programs.
“I think that the programs are more broadly known and understood at this point,” George said. “The application is more intuitive and easy to follow so people are able to access it very easily, which is fantastic.”
Shortly after Christmas, DOLA started including information about their housing assistance programs in the Department of Labor and Employment’s emails to people receiving unemployment benefits. It has also started marketing its housing counseling program in counties that have moved to red or purple on the state’s COVID-19 dial system of restrictions.
“We’re trying to do a marketing blitz in these areas because the idea is, now you have restaurants, you have businesses that are needing to shut down temporarily. And so really trying to support people when they’re in that time of crisis is really where our focus is at the moment,” George said.
On Jan. 4, nearly 11 months into the pandemic, DOLA launched an online application for their EHAP program.
“We feel like this program is going to broaden and is going to be able to help a lot more tenants now that we’ve made the move to centralizing the application,” Paredes said.
Disaster recovery firm hired to help process influx of applications
Though the amount of funding for the two housing assistance programs increased dramatically in December thanks to an infusion of new funds from state lawmakers and the Trump administration, the challenge now is getting the funds into people’s hands fast enough to keep them in their homes.
“The biggest thing that I’m hearing at this point from a lot of nonprofits that have been using the funds is that it’s taking a very long time for the applications to be processed,” said Beatriz Gonzalez, a business development officer for Bank of the West, during a Strategic Housing Working Group meeting on Jan. 21. “So while those are taking a long time and they’re in the process of, you know, the application is being processed, they’re still getting evicted.”
DOLA recently hired Mississippi-based disaster response firm Horne to help it catch up on a hefty backlog of rental assistance applications. The firm is expected to triple the amount of applications that DOLA can process in a day, according to Paredes.
“We’ve steadily been seeing an increase through time and we need the administrative support to be able to really get the assistance into the people’s hands that need it most,” George said.
George said that in 2020, the department had a two week turnaround time for their POP program. But as more and more applications flooded in throughout December and January, the turn stretched to more than a month. With the help of the disaster recovery firm, they hope to cut their turn around time back down to two weeks for both programs. But due to the huge influx of applications, George says that’s still a lofty goal.
“There’s a backlog, and that does need to be caught up on in order for them to meet their contracting goals,” she said. “We’re not there right now, but we need to be.”