Of the $39 million earmarked for Emergency Rental Assistance Program applicants, the Housing Finance Authority has paid out nothing to the 400 who applied since the launch of the program earlier this year.
During a Senate hearing Thursday, Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith told Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications Committee members that the implementation of the program presented “notable challenges,” resulting in the payout delay.
The news unsettled committee members like Sen. Marvin Blyden, who said the entire situation was “frustrating,” and Sen. Samuel Carrion who called the situation both “unacceptable” and “disappointing.”
The authority’s Federal Programs Director Janine Hector said though an application cycle has been open for a time, “there was still some lags relative to Housing Finance Authority being able to stand up the staffing so the processing aspect of that could catch up. We are at the point where we are reviewing applications and will be further staffing up with temporary employees that will be coming on board next week. Once that happens, then we will be able to advance the process.”
Griffith told committee members the authority anticipates needing to hire 20 to 22 temporary staff positions to handle eligibility review and support payment processing. While the authority’s first attempts to hire through an employment agency were unsuccessful, Griffith said the authority conducted its own interviews and new hires are expected to begin working on July 12.
With the new staff, Griffith said the authority estimates 30 files should be paid out by the end of July, and “we are aiming for the first six by next week.” He added that the authority’s goal, beginning in August, is to clear 10 to 15 files per week.
While senators were pleased to hear payouts would be sent out soon, the postponement of the payouts has caused strife for tenants and landlords across the territory.
“The territory at present is under moratorium by executive order of the governor, and that moratorium expires on July 31,” Hector said. “We are very aware of that … what we have been doing is providing assurances to landlords.”
These assurances are often in the form of communication by phone or letter. Hector said many landlords are patiently waiting, but “for those that are running out of patience and talking about providing notices to quit to their tenants, we are providing letters reassuring those landlords that their tenant is an applicant, and that the applications are in process.”
Though payout has been stalled, Griffith said it is not because applicants are being turned away. Of the applications that have undergone preliminary review, he said the eligibility rate has been greater than 95 percent and the “trend is expected to continue as additional files undergo review.”
Sen. Novelle Francis suggested the authority find a way to expedite processing of the applications that have already been submitted.
Carrion agreed. “I hope this changes because we have our people who are suffering and expecting to see this money,” he said.
To apply for the program visit the authority’s website.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Dwayne DeGraff, Steven Payne Sr., Janelle Sarauw, Kurt Vialet, and Genevieve Whitaker were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members were also present for the hearing.