The strategy itself was simple: Instead of evicting struggling renters in the middle of the pandemic, the federal government would help them pay rent and utilities. It would be up to local counties and cities to assist them.
Between the City of Spokane and Spokane County, more than $60 million in federal aid had been earmarked for rent and utility assistance.
But distributing millions of dollars worth of free money isn't as easy as it may seem.
"The challenge has been getting the money from the vendors out to the landlords and the tenants," says Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs. "That seems to have dragged on locally, across the state and across the nation."
Some have done better than others. Spokane County, led by SNAP, the longtime local community organization, has already given nearly half of the about $35 million it's been told to distribute.
But the City of Spokane, with a Seattle-based company called LiveStories as the lead, has only distributed $9.3 million, just over a third of the amount they'd been assigned. In the meantime, both landlords and tenants were waiting for their checks to arrive. Some blamed LiveStories.
"We should have gone out for a new [vendor] months ago," City Councilman Michael Cathcart says. "We let bureaucracy, I feel, just run amok."
But the problems go far beyond just one agency.
1. THE CITY OF SPOKANE GOT A LATE START
Spokane County made a snap decision: Operating under emergency protocols, they were able to skip the lengthy bidding process and select SNAP as the agency to hand out rental assistance to anyone outside the city limits.
"We've got these dollars. Let's get them on the street as soon as possible," County Commissioner Josh Kerns recalls thinking. "We knew the need was there. It doesn't do any good sitting in an account."
SNAP, through Spokane County, was able to launch its new round of federal 2021 rental assistance on March 24.
But the city of Spokane — with more layers of approval and a more explicit focus on targeting aid to marginalized communities — took much longer to launch their version.
It took another 69 days for the city to launch its own rental assistance process on June 1.
"We had a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations around 'should we have this rule or that rule and how difficult should it be,'" Cathcart says.
Ultimately, Spokane selected three vendors to help with the rental assistance, giving the money to LiveStories, the Carl Maxey Center, and Family Promise, a homeless service provider.
In June, the city managed to help more than 40 households. But that same month, the county helped almost 350.
But Landlord Association President Steve Corker says he'd gathered the information to apply to help one of his tenants back in March. He finally got paid in September. By that time, he says, his tenant was so much deeper in the hole he had to apply for rental assistance again.
"I can't keep asking, 'Why is it taking so long?'" Corker says.
But things have gotten a lot faster, LiveStories CEO Adnan Mahmud tells the Inlander.
"At the beginning we were processing $1 million a month, maybe," Mahmud says. "Now we are at $1-1.5 million a week."
2. NOBODY HAD ENOUGH EMPLOYEES TO HANDLE THE INITIAL SURGE
As soon as you open the floodgates to rental applicants, in comes the flood.
"When 2,000 people apply at one time, and you have five workers?" says Carol Weltz, who helps run the rental assistance program for SNAP. "We were running all the way, way beyond capacity."
But SNAP had the combination of size and agility to adapt quickly. They already had a crew of seasonal workers who helped them during the winter months with energy assistance.
"We asked them to stay on for the summer to help," Weltz says.
Soon, they were up to nearly 20.
"It moves a lot faster," Weltz says.
3. LIVESTORIES PROCESSED PAPER APPLICATIONS FIRST
It may have been faster to start with the easier-to-process online rental assistance applications, at least until LiveStories got fully up to speed.
But Mahmud says the city had believed that starting with paper applications was a key part of the "equity piece" of their contract.
"Let's start with people who might not be as comfortable being online... Paper applications take longer to process," Mahmud says. "So we processed the first set of those, and then we opened up the digital for everyone else."
It meant that some of the most vulnerable people got the first priority. That slowed down the process considerably right when the influx of applications was the largest.
But another piece of the city's emphasis on equity may have paid off, Mahmud suggests. They partnered with groups like Latinos En Spokane and refugee resettlement agency World Relief to specifically work with communities that may struggle to navigate the rental assistance process.
It took a long time to train everyone, but he says these groups are making everything much more efficient.
"Before they were just getting the applications to us," Mahmud says. "Now they're actually doing the application vetting process and taking on more responsibility."
4. SMALLER AGENCIES INITIALLY HAD TO SPEND THEIR OWN MONEY BEFORE BEING REIMBURSED
LiveStories is a massive organization — Mahmud says his company is providing similar services to 50 or 60 clients. A company like that has enough in the bank that it can wait to be reimbursed. But that's not the case for smaller agencies.
"From June to September we were basically fronting the cost," says Joe Ader, director of Family Promise, an agency the city had tasked to specifically help families. "We were spending out of pocket."
But their spending limit peaked at about $600,000 — they couldn't afford to pay out any more reimbursements until they were reimbursed by the city, and sometimes that took weeks.
But he gives the city credit for quickly addressing the issue. Ader says that by September the city started fronting their organizations the money to pay the incoming applications ahead of time.
5. RENTAL ASSISTANCE AGENCIES HAD TO AT LEAST TRY TO GET A SIGNATURE FROM BOTH THE LANDLORD AND THE TENANT
If the landlord cooperates, the landlord gets the money to pay off the rent they're owed. If the landlord doesn't respond, that money is paid directly to the tenant. But that requirement itself adds time.
"You have to spend three weeks to make sure the landlord has a chance to respond if they want the money," says Mahmud. "You can't go faster than that if the landlord is silent."
The money funneled through the Washington State Department of Commerce came with an additional catch: Landlords had to promise they wouldn't evict their tenants for the next six months. And for some landlords — particularly larger landlords, Ader says — that wasn't a promise they wanted to make.
And Corker says that some landlords have struggled getting cooperation from the other end.
"Something I'll never understand is the fact that some of the evictions that have taken place are basically tenants that refused to participate in the process," Corker says.
6. THE RULES WERE A BURDEN — AND KEPT CHANGING
But plenty of tenants were willing to work to get assistance, but they found themselves confronted with a thicket of red tape when they tried.
Everything, from their income to how much they were behind on rent, had to be documented, Weltz says.
"And in a COVID situation, sometimes getting documentation can be very frustrating," Weltz says.
Some businesses have remained remote-work-only while others closed during the pandemic.
"Maybe they couldn't get verification they owed back rent," says Terri Anderson, director of the Spokane Tenants Union. "Or they had to go to a job they lost three jobs ago to be able to get information about what their income loss was."
A huge part of the workload, Weltz says, was the time it takes to call back and help the hundreds of people who applied without submitting the required documents.
"It really requires a lot of handholding," Weltz says. "Even the workers weren't that clear, because it was a little convoluted."
So everyone breathed a sigh of relief when, in August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury clarified that tenants could "self-attest" if they didn't have access to all their paperwork.
But Mahmud says that, overall, the perpetual rental assistance tweaks from the federal government — for everything from reporting rules to data collection requirements — create their own behind-the-scenes burdens.
"They're constantly changing the rules," Mahmud says. "They're still changing the rules. Reporting requirements, data collection requirements are constantly changing."
"There were so many ways that people were affected by COVID, it had absolutely nothing to do with losing your job."
7. SOME OF THE RENTERS WHO NEEDED THE MONEY MOST DIDN'T KNOW THEY WERE ELIGIBLE
City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson says one of her employees had previously received rental assistance. But when he was falling behind, he didn't know he could ask for more.
"He didn't do anything because he had been told by somebody that he couldn't apply again," says Wilkerson. "I think there was confusing information out there of how many months you can get."
Similarly, Anderson thinks the community can do a better job of advertising rental assistance. And she's particularly critical of a recent city video claiming that you needed to have suffered "lost jobs or wages due to the COVID-19" to apply for rental assistance. In reality, she says, you only had to show you'd been financially impacted by COVID, such as through increased expenses.
"People had to take in their sister's kids," she says. "People were quarantining. There were so many ways that people were affected by COVID, it had absolutely nothing to do with losing your job."
8. THE RENTAL ASSISTANCE HASN'T STOPPED THE BLEEDING
There's a lot more rental assistance on the way, all the way through 2023. The City of Spokane is going to direct $10 million toward LiveStories, but will also spend about $5.5 million to seek out another vendor.
"I'm hopeful SNAP can now have the capacity to come over and give us a hand," Cathcart says.
But the bigger problem isn't rental assistance so much as rent:
"People already couldn't afford the rent before and it's 30 percent higher," Weltz says.
In just the past nine months, according to Zillow estimates, the typical rent in the City of Spokane had increased by over $200.
"People who have gotten aid now are behind," Corker says. "It's quantity of housing. We're tens of thousands of homes behind, and we're not building anywhere near enough to create the availability." ♦