Federal funds from the state-run Emergency Rental Assistance Program are slowly making their way to Santa Feans.
And with the reality of state and City of Santa Fe eviction moratoriums one day expiring and funding distribution deadlines looming, fear and concern are ramping up.
City officials and community organizers say there hasn’t been enough government outreach to raise awareness about the program among renters. Frustrating matters: The application process is overly complicated.
State and local governments nationwide have distributed 11% of the tens of billions of federal dollars set aside for rent assistance, the Associated Press reported last week. New Mexico has distributed about 19% of the available funds, with about $33.6 million having gone out since the program launched in early April.
Program spokesman Henry Valdez says the US Department of the Treasury dictated earlier this year that states that didn’t distribute 65% of the funds by Sept. 30 would risk losing funding. Since then, Treasury has told states they have “breathing room” around the deadline, Valdez says, but New Mexico is still trying to meet that target.
The state has received nearly 2,000 applications from Santa Fe County residents and has distributed about $3.1 million, according to Valdez.
It’s not clear which part of town has seen the largest share of those applications, but a recent analysis from the nonprofit Urban Institute used several factors—including the number of severely cost-burdened, low-income renters and jobs lost to the pandemic—to conclude that the southwest portion of the county should be prioritized for emergency rental assistance.
A report from the local nonprofit Chainbreaker Collective found that as many as 5,700 Santa Fe renter households were at risk of eviction should moratoriums be lifted.
While the federal moratorium is no longer in effect, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued an open-ended order in March 2020 pausing evictions across the state. The court hasn’t indicated when the pause will end.
Chainbreaker community organizer Cathy Garcia says the relatively low number of applications compared to the number of households the group identified as at-risk points to failures by state and local governments to reach Santa Feans most in need.
Treasury allows state governments to use up to 10% of the program funds for administrative costs. Valdez says the state Department of Finance and Administration, which is overseeing the program, “isn’t even close to that [10%]” and doesn’t plan to increase administrative spending because the department “wants to have more money to give to New Mexicans for rent.”
Valdez adds that rising COVID-19 cases have interfered with the state’s plans to do in-person outreach events.
Alexandra Ladd, director of the city’s Office of Affordable Housing, tells SFR the city doesn’t have the staffing nor the technological capabilities to adequately get word of the program out to communities that are low-income, don’t speak English or lack reliable internet access.
“We need kiosks set up in the mall, we need people manning tables with laptops or tablets to just help walk people through the process, and the city definitely doesn’t have that capacity,” Ladd says, conceding that the city has left much of the work to groups like Chainbreaker.
Garcia says that shows rental assistance isn’t a priority.
“It’s about political will,” she says, “and it’s about what we as a city decide is actually important to us.”
Outreach isn’t the only issue.
Ladd says the City of Santa Fe has raised concerns that the application process is challenging with the state finance department.
“In many meetings, the city has pointed out to the state that the application is hard to navigate,” Ladd says. “The language is pretty dense and high-level. Everybody knows what the shortcomings are.”
Garcia says Chainbreaker has encountered a host of challenges in trying to help renters apply for assistance, from language and tech accessibility to burdensome documentation requirements.
The application requires documentation showing income for all adult household members; at least one household member being at risk of homelessness or housing instability; the applicant having been impacted by COVID-19; and proof the applicant rents a residential dwelling.
“There are tenants we’ve been working with for weeks to get all their paperwork together,” Garcia says.
She adds that the documentation requirements are an obstacle for renters who don’t have rental contracts or whose landlords don’t want to participate in the program.
“They’re renting a room but they might be undocumented so they didn’t want to have a contract in the first place,” Garcia says. “Then there are landlords who maybe haven’t been permitted to be renting out spaces, so they don’t want to participate in the whole thing because they’re worried they’re going to get in trouble.”
Even the self-attestation forms—an alternative option for renters dealing with hurdles like uncooperative landlords—are onerous, Garcia says, for people who aren’t technologically savvy.
“It may sound super intuitive, but I swear to God I’ve had to teach people how to use Gmail,” Garcia says.
Amid difficulties in getting rental assistance, Garcia wants to remind Santa Fe renters they’re still protected.
On Thursday, the US Supreme Court ended the national eviction moratorium. As of Aug. 16, about 3.5 million people nationwide said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the US Census Bureau’s Household Purse Survey.
Santa Feans remain protected by moratoriums on evictions for non-payment enacted by both the state Supreme Court and the city, although a Searchlight New Mexico investigation found a number of people were illegally evicted throughout the state during the pandemic.
Garcia says Chainbreaker has worked with Santa Fe renters who were evicted despite the moratoriums.
“All of these politicians are talking about this rental assistance as if it’s something completely theoretical and I’m sitting here with a tenant face-to-face every day,” Garcia says. “This crisis has a name, it has an address.”
New Mexicans in need of rental assistance can apply online or request a paper application at renthelpnm.org, or speak to program representatives by calling (833)485-1334. Chainbreaker Collective can be reached at (505)989-3858.