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To help more people at risk of eviction, Carroll County redirects $500K of coronavirus relief funding

Carroll County’s commissioners voted Thursday to redirect $500,000 of its federal coronavirus relief funding to helping prevent evictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county received $14.6 million in coronavirus relief funding May 18 based on a spending plan previously approved by the Board of County Commissioners. On Thursday, county administrator Roberta Windham said some of the anticipated costs associated with that plan are not what they expected them to be.

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“The original plan was all estimated costs,” she said, and “as we’ve implemented the plan we’ve realized that some of that was overestimated or we got cost savings that we didn’t expect,” such as the renovations to the alternate emergency communications center being partially covered by the Maryland Emergency Number Systems Board.

As a result, there is a surplus of about $833,000 in coronavirus relief funding, she said, and county staff recommended the commissioners redirect part of that to an area that has become a growing concern since a ban on evictions ended July 25, allowing eviction-related court proceedings to resume.

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“We want to prevent eviction and encourage landlords to not file for the formal eviction process, but rather work with their tenants and work with us to get through this program to prevent eviction,” said Celene Steckel, director of the county’s Department of Citizen Services.

County staff proposed devoting $500,000 of the surplus funding to covering up to six months of rental arrears to prevent evictions for those who haven’t been able to pay as a result of financial issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citizen Services has a partnership with a local nonprofit, Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. (HSP), which has been surveying landlords to get a sense of how many people in the county have not paid their rent due to COVID-19. Steckel said Thursday that 125 survey respondents said more than 50% of their tenants owed $3,000 or more in rent, estimated to be more than $400,000 total.

But the survey doesn’t capture the entire picture. There are about 10,000 rental units in Carroll County, according to Steckel.

Danielle Yates, Carroll’s bureau chief of housing, presented further evidence of the effect of COVID-19 on housing. Since the beginning of the state of emergency in March, the county has made more than 31 rental adjustments, related to COVID-19, for participants in the housing choice voucher program. Yates said that reflects a 90% increase from their typical numbers. And there’s more people who need help.

“Our program only assists about 1% of the rental units in Carroll County, which leaves many families at this point in time unassisted regarding the reductions in their income,” Yates said.

Steckel expects the people coming to them for help will include people who previously haven’t struggled with paying rent.

“People are losing their jobs,” she said. “This is going to be a very different time for folks than we have seen in the past seeking assistance ... .”

A 2018 American Community Survey found nearly 43% of renters in Carroll County devote 35% or more of their income to rent, Yates said, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends a household devote no more than 30% of its income to rent to be financially stable.

The commissioners quickly agreed the rental support program was a worthy cause and unanimously voted to approve it.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, asked if there was a program for people facing foreclosures due to COVID-19 preventing them from paying mortgages. Steckel said those facing foreclosures could contact HSP for possible assistance, but if the county were to fund this need, the cost would soar. The money needed to prevent a foreclosure is usually much higher than back rent, she said, so the county would be helping fewer people if it were to tackle that issue instead. Steckel noted it takes longer to foreclose a home than to evict a tenant.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, wanted to know more about the surplus funding. He asked whether there were other top contenders for redirecting the money, such as volunteer fire companies. About $934,000 of the federal funding has already been allocated to the fire companies to assist with lost fundraising revenue.

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Windham said the fire companies are on the minds of county staff, too. Money unspent on the business and nonprofit revival fund, Carroll Rebound, may be available for the fire companies, she suggested.

The COVID-19 rental support program will be administered through HSP. Scott Yard, executive director of HSP, expressed excitement Friday over this new funding. He said in an interview that this will allow HSP to help more people — and not just low-income individuals, but also those closer to the middle of the pack.

“More than anything, it again shows what local government and nonprofits can do together,” he said. “I think the commissioners and Department of Citizen Services have done a great job of recognizing the problems the pandemic has caused and coming up with solutions.”

Eligibility requirements include proof of lost income due to COVID-19, having paid rent fully as of March 31 and meeting income guidelines. The program will accept applications from Sept. 1 to Nov. 20, as funding through the federal relief program needs to be spent before the end of this year. Priority will be given to families with children, people with disabilities, and people who are 60 or older.

More information can be found at https://hspinc.org/ or by calling HSP at 410-857-2999. The office is at 10 Distillery Drive in Westminster, on the ground floor of the building. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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