NC Senate approves bill aimed at allowing landlords easier access to rental assistance program

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina Senate passed a bill Wednesday aimed at helping landlords tap into funding from a rental assistance program more quickly, but state officials overseeing the program say the proposed changes could actually slow the process down.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 28-14, would allow landlords to submit an application to the HOPE Program on behalf of a tenant to recover missed payments. Currently, a tenant is the only one who can do that.

Landlords can refer tenants to the program, and the state will follow up with them.

“Our government on several levels has disregarded the rights of the property owners and housing providers,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson). “These more stringent policies are harming tenants as well as landowners by not allowing them full access to funding.”

The HOPE, which stands for Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions, Program began during the pandemic when the moratorium on evictions was still in effect. Some of the main goals have been to keep people in their current housing while ensuring landlords still received the money they needed to pay their own bills.

Laura Hogshead, director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said the proposed change could have the unintended consequence of delaying payments.

“Then, we will have to build a new computer system. We’ll have to build new checks and balances. And, it will just stall our progress. And, it will slow the payments to landlords,” she said. “There are some things that tenants have to attest to themselves that a landlord won’t know, and so it doesn’t work to have landlords control the process from start to finish.”

Mike Summey, a landlord who owns properties throughout the southeast, said he talked with Sen. Edwards about some of the concerns he’s had with how the program works.

He said he’s had a few cases where tenants left their housing while owing thousands of dollars in rent, but Summey has no way of contacting of them.

“It’s been a frustrating situation all around,” he said. “We’re in the dark. We don’t know whether they applied. We don’t know what they’re doing.”

Summey said he’s been able to afford to take the financial hit in situations like that, but for smaller landlords it’s been “a terrible situation.”

He pushed for having landlords more involved in the application process through the HOPE Program to try to avoid situations like that from happening.

Hogshead said her agency has worked with landlords who refer tenants to the program by following up with those tenants and guiding them through the application process. Janet Kelly-Scholle, a spokesperson for NCORR, said there have been 3,509 such referrals so far.

Sen. Edwards was critical of the slow rollout of the program, noting that millions of dollars have been available for these payments that still have not gone out.

Hogshead said as of Wednesday, her agency has obligated about 77 percent of the $396 million available in initial funding. Once that funding runs out, she said the federal government has made additional money available to keep the program going.

The state administers the HOPE Program in 88 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The remaining 12 counties operate similar programs themselves.

Hogshead also said the agency on average is getting payments out about 14 to 19 days from the time of application. She also noted that as of late August, North Carolina ranked second among states for the number of households served and sixth for spending of the program’s money.

The bill that passed Wednesday also: would direct HOPE funds be used to cover costs of hotel or motel rooms, cover reasonable late fees charged by landlords, cover utility or energy costs for renters’ households irrespective of an application for rental assistance, limit the assistance period to 12 months with the possibility of extending that by three months only if necessary “to ensure housing stability” and if funding is available.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

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