Bernalillo County squeaks past federal requirement to spend rent relief money

By: - November 23, 2021 5:45 am

Demonstrators calling for an end to evictions and rent debt listen to a speaker talk through the struggles of living without shelter in Albuquerque. Organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation put together an overnight camp-in about housing rights outside the Metropolitan Court in Downtown Albuquerque on Sept. 24. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Officials in Bernalillo County just barely met a federal deadline for the spending of emergency rental assistance funds, staving off the clawback of millions of dollars.

Renters in the county outside of Albuquerque get rent assistance from the county government, not the state government. That’s a choice county officials made early in the pandemic. Doña Ana County also distributes rent funds directly. Everywhere else in New Mexico, the state doles out rent assistance funds.

Localities that opted to handle federal rental assistance themselves were required to report to the federal government last week how much money they’ve spent or committed to renters and landlords. Governments that got less than 65% of the money out the door risked the feds taking back the funding k and sending it to other regions that did a better job spending the money or that had greater need. 

As of Friday, the Bernalillo County’s Economic Development office had spent or committed a little more than $3.3 million of the $5 million it received in April. That amounts to about 66% of the total received, just a hair over the 65% requirement. (Committed funds are those approved to be spent but not yet distributed.)

Part of that $3.3 million includes money spent on administering the program by government workers, including the cost for software Bernalillo County bought that hosts the rental assistance application. The county is allowed to spend up to 10% of the $5 million it received on administration costs.

Tenants can receive rental assistance if they lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic and make less than 80% of the area’s median household income. (In Bernalillo County, that’s $55,280 for a family of four.)

Mayling Armijo, economic development director, said Bernalillo County has faced multiple challenges in spending the money. The county got a huge rush of applications beginning in late August after the federal eviction moratorium was lifted, she said. 

“We didn’t have a high number of applicants. Once the moratorium was lifted, then that changed — the game changed completely,” she told Source New Mexico. “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta actually pay my rent now.’ ”

Tenants in New Mexico still have some protections against eviction while the pandemic persists here. The New Mexico Supreme Court in March 2020 imposed a stay on evictions in cases where tenants can show in court that they are unable to pay rent. 

The county so far has distributed around $1.9 million to 181 renters or landlords — about $10,000 apiece, according to officials. Roughly 1,400 landlords and tenants applied.

Armijo said another challenge is that many BernCo applicants live within Albuquerque city limits or outside Bernalillo County, so they aren’t eligible for the county’s rent assistance money and have to apply instead to the state’s $170 million rent assistance fund. 

The county has gotten so many applications from those who don’t live in the right areas that it has put a locator map on its website.

Armijo said another challenge is that a “significant number” of landlords are refusing rental assistance even when tenants successfully apply for and qualify for the aid. The county hasn’t done a survey of landlords about why they’re refusing the money, but they’ve heard anecdotally that landlords prefer to go ahead with an eviction so they can raise rent on a new tenant, sell their rental property amid a hot housing market or don’t want to fill out the 1099 tax form required to receive the money. 

The problem of landlords refusing rental assistance is also common in the rest of the state, officials have told Source New Mexico in September. If a landlord can’t be reached or refuses the money, it’s paid instead to the tenant directly.

Landlords refuse emergency rent money and Section 8 vouchers

Armijo said the county decided to administer its own rent help program, because it had previously implemented a program helping small businesses get grants provided through the federal CARES Act. She also said keeping the program local meant the county could accept applications in-person at various community centers.

Local governments across the United States have hit some snags in spending their rent assistance money. As much as $1.2 billion in unobligated funds could be pulled back from underperforming state and local governments, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In October, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new rules to encourage local governments to spend their rent money, including requiring new assessments every two months on how much money each recipient has spent. It also established the Nov. 15 deadline for local governments to spend or obligate 65%.

“Some grantees have not demonstrated sufficient progress or intent to make changes in their programs to get resources into the hands of eligible tenants and landlords,” Treasury officials wrote to introduce the new rules and deadlines.

Armijo said the county would have appealed to the federal government for more time to fix their program if they didn’t hit the 65% threshold. The plan would have been to increase outreach and marketing to drum up more applications, she said. 

The county expects to pull down more money for rental assistance. A second phase of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program will bring at least another $4 million more once the first-phase funding is spent.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.