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Howard receives $9.7 million federal grant to help residents with rent, utilities amid coronavirus pandemic

Howard County is set to receive $9.7 million from a U.S. Department of Treasury grant to help with rental and utility assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The funding, which requires County Council authorization to be put in the current fiscal budget, could be in renters’ hands as soon as March, according to Kelly Cimino, director of the county Department of Housing and Community Development.

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The grant allows the county to provide renters with up to nine months of rental assistance, as well as utility assistance. Cimino said the Treasury Department grant has fewer restrictions than many other grant opportunities. To qualify, renters must earn less than 80% of the county’s average median income, which would be $94,184 for a family of four or $75,347 for a family of two. The loss of income must also be related to the pandemic.

“This is different from other grants where we weren’t allowed to help those who have already been helped. This is a major change,” Cimino said.

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This is the largest grant the Department of Housing and Community Development has ever received.

“These funds are vital to support our residents who suffered job or income loss due to COVID-19 and are being forced to choose which bills to pay versus how to feed their families,” County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement. “The faster we can get these funds into the hands of our residents, the better.”

According to the Department of Planning and Zoning, there are 23,000 renter households in the county.

The Department of Housing and Community Development applied for the grant Jan. 12 after the Treasury Department posted the funding opportunity on Jan. 8. Cimino said she hadn’t seen such a quick turnaround time before. By Jan. 21, the county was notified it had received grant funding.

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In most grant applications, according to Cimino, the department is asked to justify its need with a long narrative. That was not the case this time, she said.

The grant was awarded based on the percentage of the county’s population in comparison to state population. Cimino said the department did not know how much money the Treasury Department would award the county until the grant was approved.

Any jurisdiction of 200,000 residents or more was able to apply for the grant; for those jurisdictions with less than 200,000, the state would get the money and then allocate it to those counties, according to Sameer Sidh, Ball’s chief of staff.

When the Department of Housing and Community Development was awarded $1.6 million in federal CARES Act money last year, the department helped 365 households in Howard. Each household received $4,500 in rental assistance for either three or six months, according to Cimino.

She estimates that, with the Treasury Department grant, the county will be able to help around 400 households for every $2 million it received.

Until the process begins with the grant money, Cimino said there is some security for renters with the current statewide eviction moratorium that’s in effect until March 31.

“When the moratorium ends and [renters] have this big balance, what are they going to do?” Cimino said. “I think people are just scared.”

In order for the Department of Housing and Community Development to begin releasing the money, Ball’s office must draft a resolution for the County Council to review and approve. Sidh said they hope to have the resolution in front of the council in time for its next monthly meeting on Feb. 3.

“As activity is shaking out at the federal and state level, we’re taking a flexible approach to what’s happening,” Sidh said. “This is one of the adjustments we are happy to make.”

Cimino said the Department of Housing and Community Development is selecting nonprofits to work with in anticipation of council authorization of the funds, so the department can expedite the process of getting money to renters.

“We will be able to help families that are still experiencing loss of income,” Cimino said. “This gives me a lot of hope.”

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