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Requests For Emergency Rental Assistance Are Surging

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since December, Congress has allocated a total of more than $46 billion in emergency assistance to help people who haven't been able to pay their rent because of COVID-19. But many tenants are still waiting for funds to arrive. From member station KUNC in northern Colorado, Leigh Paterson reports.

ADELA: (Speaking Spanish).

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Last May, Adela and her three kids spent a lot of time hanging outside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

PATERSON: Playing soccer and listening to music at a reservoir near Fort Collins in northern Colorado.

Your kids look so happy.

ADELA: Yeah.

PATERSON: But at home, in the trailer park where they live, last spring was tough. Adela's a stay-at-home mom. We're using her first name only because she's part of a family with mixed immigration status. Her husband, who's a house painter, was out of work during May and June, which has created a cascade of financial troubles for them.

ADELA: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: Adela's family lived paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic, so when her husband's work dried up, they had no way to pay their bills.

ADELA: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: Adela describes making the rounds at local churches every week looking for food. Soon after, she applied for and received $1,700 in emergency rental assistance from a local nonprofit. If it hadn't come through, they could have become homeless. Now organizations across the country are starting to give out rental assistance from a federal pot of $25 billion Congress designated in December for COVID relief.

KELLY EVANS: Come on in.

PATERSON: Kelly Evans runs a nonprofit called Neighbor2Neighbor. She's overseeing $10 million of that assistance for Larimer County.

EVANS: So our average check right now is just under $5,000 per applicant to the landlord.

PATERSON: Evans says demand during the pandemic has been so great that Neighbor2Neighbor has had to hire more people, doubling the number of housing coordinators on staff. The organization has around 800 applications in its processing queue and a wait time of around six weeks.

EVANS: Because as soon as we get people assisted, there's just that many more people who are applying.

PATERSON: In addition to processing backlogs, some states have experienced legislative delays in making that money available. New York's emergency rental assistance dollars were tied up in its budget, which just passed this week. Michigan lawmakers approved allocating some of its federal rental assistance in mid-March, saving the rest for later. Daria Daniel is with the National Association of Counties.

DARIA DANIEL: Yes, we are definitely hearing about the overwhelming need.

PATERSON: And she's getting lots of questions about the new federal funds from counties across the country.

DANIEL: Are we eligible? How much money are we getting? Does it cover rental arrears? How about utilities? And so the need is great, really, across the country.

PATERSON: Those resources will take time to reach communities, and it's nerve-wracking for families like Adela's. When her husband's work slowed down this winter, the bills piled up again.

ADELA: (Speaking Spanish).

PATERSON: "It's not like it was before," she says, "when I was at the food bank every week. But we're still having financial difficulties." In the last year, more than 14,000 Coloradans have applied for money to pay the rent. Adela's family had to borrow money from family and friends. But with the help of their landlord, she applied for additional assistance in March, and it came through four weeks later. Not everyone is so lucky, though. Texas, for example, has received 72,000 complete applications for emergency rental assistance, but due to software issues, as of the end of March, they've only managed to send out 250 payments.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDFRAPP'S "BLACK CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.