Local Rent Assistance Programs Underscore Wariness Over Large Relief Bills

It seems fair to say that no matter what transpires during the rest of our lives the memory of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain as a sharp and defining event. It was the reason that far too many people died, others got sick and some have lingering effects that now can be listed as a disability.

On Monday Health and Human Services along with the Justice Department rolled out guidance making clear that symptoms of “long COVID-19” could qualify as a disability under the federal civil rights law. Such health concerns are one of the continuing consequences of the virus.

From business slowdowns, supply disruptions, and unemployment people have faced an array of side effects from the pandemic other than just the medical ones. In large metropolitan areas, like Madison and Dane County, one of the highlighted needs over the past year is the lack of funds some people need to pay for rent.

The federal government took action in 2020 to place a federal moratorium on evictions, and over time extended the action. I suspect the prevailing sentiment across the nation was supportive as most everyone grasped the enormity of the virus. The large federal relief measures also found strong public support, including from the desk of this blogger.

The nature of the average citizen is one of empathy and care and that was reflected in the federal funds sent to the states and local communities. A need was presented and a program was constructed, as an example, to allow for assistance with rental payments.

So why do I suspect that some taxpayers and citizens are concerned about what was reported in today’s Wisconsin State Journal? I encourage a full read, but here are some snippets that I suspect many subscribers found to be unsettling.

Reporter Chris Rickert wrote that about a third of $15 million in federal funds set aside for rental assistance in Madison and Dane County is yet to be spent and there’s another $28 million on the way.

Later this year, renters still needing help more than a year after the pandemic shut down the economy will also no longer have a single portal for applying for funds because the contractor responsible for the current countywide program is bowing out and the city and county are coming up with their own separate programs administered through several different vendors.

On July 8, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced that the county was contracting with the Madison nonprofit Urban Triage to administer $12.5 million in eviction-prevention funds …”

TRC’s selection in January as the sole provider of the funds was controversial among some Black activists who complained that the city and county were cutting minority-led organizations out of competing for the contract, saying that such organizations were more familiar with the communities most in need of rental help.

Urban Triage called the city’s decision a case of “anti-Blackness” and “white supremacy in action,” …”

The other part of the story which reaches out to shake confidence in the foundations for the funding and programming has to do with the unknown need in our area for continued rental assistance.

There’s no good estimate for how many households continue to need help given those two earlier rounds of assistance — and as the unemployment rate has plummeted in the Madison area to 3.1% as of May.

“It’s really difficult to know” how many households continue to need assistance, Madison Community Development director Jim O’Keefe said. “There are households that received assistance with (overdue rent) through CORE and may have since fallen behind again. And there are surely renters who haven’t accessed the program yet but may be motivated to do so with the expiration of the moratorium.”

What bothers many rank-and-file folks is what appears to be such a disconnect from what was presented as a pressing need for assistance with rents–with the upfront acknowledgment now as to no idea how many people locally are still needing the program. Add in the millions not yet spent, the almost double amount of that to yet be reaped for the rent program, along with the way funds can be so easily moved around with providers if there is enough whining, and it becomes more clear as to why empathy among the electorate can be eroded.

This is always the problem with large government programs, and it should bother all of us. As a liberal, I fully appreciate the power of government to act for the needs of the moment. Such robust legislative actions do have a real meaningful impact. Many needed and received rent assistance. I fully acknowledge there is a continuing issue for some people.

But it is also clear that large funded programs often are marred by bureaucratic problems, and when that happens it makes for a lack of confidence among the populace for future moments when needs arise. That is why it is essential for those of us who align with an active and robust central government to then demand the implementation of programs be as reflective of the original goal as can be attained.

With that as a desire, why do I feel the county and city missed that mark?

And so it goes.