Virgin Islanders behind on their rent because of the coronavirus pandemic lost a critical safety net on Thursday when the Supreme Court rejected the latest federal moratorium on evictions.
Their only hope to stay housed now is getting rent assistance from the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority’s Emergency Rent Assistance Program.
In the seven months since VIHFA was tasked with getting $21.3 million in federal rent assistance funds into the hands of renters and their landlords, help has come at a painfully slow pace, according to Sen. Marvin Blyden’s office. This is despite directives from the U.S. Treasury urging local agencies to go easy on onerous documentation requirements.
Most recently, the Treasury issued seven changes to speed the local approval process, said Blyden, who chairs the Legislature’s Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure, and Telecommunications committee. They included allowing a household to attest, rather than document, that it meets each eligibility requirement of the ERAP program. A family at risk of eviction can even get advance assistance while its application is being processed.
Up until August, only $5.1 billion had been distributed nationally of the $46.5 billion Congress approved to provide rent relief, according to the Treasury. Figures on the number of renters assisted and amount paid out by VIHFA’s rent assistance program were requested but not forthcoming by publication.
Homeowners who depend on rent to pay the mortgage struggle, too. In April, the Finance Authority received $8.5 million in federal aid to help keep them afloat. The status of that program, called the Home Owners Assistance Fund, was also unavailable.
“No one should be evicted because of that program,” Blyden said, referring to VIHFA’s ERAP. Although the territory is no longer under a local eviction moratorium, it shouldn’t need one if ERAP throws underwater renters a lifeline, he said.
Launched in March, the program reportedly began releasing funds earlier this month.
“We are afraid that the combination of the Supreme Court’s decision and the slow pace of getting ERAP funds out to the public, not just here but across the country, is going to make a bad situation even worse,” Blyden legislative advisor Rudolph Krigger said. “We have been in constant communication with VIHFA over the last months urging them to take all possible means to get the money out the door.”
Agencies across the country, including VIHFA, tapped nonprofits to do the program’s intake work, ostensibly increasing their outreach. But VIHFA still sets the rules on what’s required of applicants.
Contrary to Treasury’s directives, the rules on its website pose such documentation hurdles as requiring a statement of rent owed or eviction notice from the landlord; a job letter; a layoff or furlough letter; at least two months’ worth of pay stubs; and a Social Security benefit letter.
“If someone cannot produce a lease or a 1040, it’s OK. Process the application. We need a sense of desperation from VIHA to get those monies into tenants’ hands,” Krigger said.
Responding to the Supreme Court ruling, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge called on state and local officials to “distribute the Emergency Rental Assistance funds provided by our federal government with the utmost urgency,” using every flexibility allowed by law. Evictions for non-payment of rent should be permitted only after landlords and tenants have sought Emergency Rental Assistance funds, Fudge said.
V.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Shelley Hodge promised Blyden to put eviction cases at the rear of the court’s backlog, the senator said.
“Even with the overturn of the moratorium, we expect and certainly hope it will be weeks and months before the courts can begin hearing cases,” Blyden said.
Pressure from landlords can push delinquent tenants out the door without legal action, however. The senator’s office has been fielding calls from some who are scrambling for alternatives, Krigger said.
“I just got off the phone with a lady who’s staying with family in Orlando because her landlord couldn’t wait any longer. She applied for assistance here but didn’t get any feedback. Now her employer has called her back to work, but she doesn’t have a place to stay,” he said.
The ERAP program could pay her back-rent and provide funds for a security deposit so she can return, find a rental and return to work; but according to the senator’s office, it won’t because she’s not on-island.
Treasury ruled last March that public housing residents affected by COVID also qualify for ERAP assistance for the portion of rent they’re responsible for paying. The Virgin Islands Housing Authority reported that none of its residents has used the program.
“The Virgin Islands Housing Authority reminds residents to report income changes to the property manager’s office to ensure an adjustment of rent occurs when there is a loss of income,” Director of Asset Management Jimmy Farmer responded by email.
A total of 69 residents are at risk for eviction between St. Thomas and St. Croix, Farmer said.
To Get Help
– Information about the Emergency Rent Assistance Program is at the VIHFA website.
– Applicants can download an application in English, Spanish or Haitian Creole here.
– Intake locations are online here.