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To help ease a backlog of Cumberland County tenants behind on rent because of  the COVID-19 pandemic, the county Board of Commissioners on Monday sent $500,000 of local American Rescue Plan funds to rent assistance while the county waits for more federal and state support.

The American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, is a federal bill, passed by Congress in March 2021, that gave millions of dollars to local governments to help address issues related to the pandemic.

Cumberland’s rental assistance program was initially funded with two rounds of federal rental aid, one from the December 2020 COVID-19 stimulus package and the other from ARPA. In total, the rental assistance program received over $18 million in direct federal aid.

The program is designed to help families financially affected by the pandemic who have an annual income of 80% or lower than the area median income. 

But that money was spent quickly, as the demand for the aid was high.

When applications for the program halted in January, more than $14.8 million had been spent on over 2,500 renting households in Cumberland County. The rest of the $18 million was spent on costs associated with disbursing the aid, such as staffing and casework.

At that time, over 5,000 applications to the rental aid program needed to be processed by the county.

645 applications to be processed

Originally, the disbursement of the aid was handled by Innovative Emergency Management, a Wake County-based private company contracted by county officials. In March, however, the operation of the program was taken over by the Cumberland County Department of Social Services, Carolina Public Press reported.

IEM said it ended its work with the rental aid program due to restrictions of administrative fees imposed by the N.C. General Assembly.

In Senate Bill 172, the state legislature lowered the administrative fee from 15% to the 5% allowed under U.S. Treasury guidelines, CPP reported. IEM said in March that the lowered fee was not enough to cover its disbursement costs.

Since the county DSS has taken over the program, just 645 applicants to the rental aid program are left to be processed, Assistant County Manager Heather Skeens said at the county Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday.

Of the state funding, $4.3 million was designated to be used on the remaining applicants, but those funds expired after a Sept. 30 deadline to spend them had passed, per U.S. Treasury guidelines.

“DSS staff have been working tirelessly since June,” Skeens said. “Staff have also worked overtime.”

Rental assistance applications open Nov. 1

An additional $1.7 million in rental aid from the federal government will be allocated to the county, but Skeens said that the county has not been told when  that money will arrive.

And about $14 million is expected from the state’s second round of rental aid, specifically from ARPA, when applications for the rental assistance program are planned to reopen on Nov. 1.

The Board of Commissioners narrowly approved the additional $500,000 in a 3-2 vote. Board Chairman Glenn Adams and Commissioners Jeannette Council and Charles Evans voted for the measure while Commissioners Larry Lancaster and Jimmy Keefe voted against it. Commissioners Toni Stewart and Michael Boose were not present.

“The state came up and said, ‘Hey, we want to help. We want to help here. Here’s the (emergency rental assistance) funds. Oh, but if you don’t get it in by this day, we’re taking all that money back,’ and that’s what they did. They took the money that was promised to Cumberland County, and they’re taking it back. Now we’re trying to put this bridge loan in,” Keefe said.

Keefe was also frustrated with the lack of a firm date of when the $1.7 million in reallocation funds would be received from the federal government.

“I appreciate the position that you’re in because you inherited a mess,” he said, referring to Skeens. “These are the same people that applied for these funds in November of 2021.”

Lack of affordable housing in Cumberland

Since before the pandemic, average rents have spiked in Cumberland County, according to Apartment List, a service that tracks local rent data nationwide.

Last month, the average rent on the market in the county was over $1,400 a month. For a one-bedroom apartment, the average was $1,075. A year ago, those rates were $1,333 and $1,021, respectively. Before the pandemic in September 2019, the average rents were $965 and $740.

According to an affordable housing study from Fayetteville’s city staff last summer, three quarters of households in the city whose income is 80% or lower than the area median income pay 30% or more of their income on monthly rent and utilities.

Ben Sessoms

Ben Sessoms is a Carolina Public Press staff writer based in Fayetteville. Send an email to bsessoms@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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