Chainbreaker Collective canvassers Yetzali Reyna, Cipriana Jurado Herrera, Patricia Aguilar and Mari Aguilar set up a space to help tenants at Evergreen Apartments in Santa Fe apply for emergency rental assistance on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo by Austin Fisher/Source NM)
Chanel Smith is 60 years old, and she loves having people over, especially her grandchildren. Her table’s already set for guests in her one-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque.
“They are so spoiled. I wouldn’t trade them for nothing in the world,” she said. “Those are my babies.”
She moved here about two years ago, after having to give up her apartment of nearly 20 years due to accessibility issues. But last year, she nearly lost the new place she calls home.
Smith can’t work because of health issues and qualifies for housing assistance. A doctor referred her to a social worker who helped her with the paperwork, and she was awarded a voucher a year after applying.
Her management company was notified, but she still found an eviction notice on her door. That sent Smith on a path of calls and visits to the management company, with little response.
“I don’t know what the heck they were trying to do. I was stressed out because I’ve never had nothing like this happen to me,” she said.
Ultimately, a legal aid organization had to step in to correct it.
Smith initially received a Section 8 voucher, but was also given support through New Mexico’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which is backed by federal pandemic relief funds. The program is winding down and slated to end in August, when people working with the program expect to see a wave of evictions.
Housing, like many sectors, experienced a shock to the system during the pandemic as people lost jobs and housing prices boomed. Just like it did with small businesses and food assistance, the federal government sent money to state and local governments with few strings attached in hopes of staving off a bigger crisis.
Some who helped administer the money said that the more straightforward approach was a breath of fresh air, especially because housing assistance funds are often underutilized. And they say more flexibility like this could make for a stronger system and keep more people, like Chanel Smith, in their homes.
“Suddenly, we were in this situation where people had to invent brand new ways of doing things,” said Cathy Garcia, spokesperson for the Chainbreaker Collective, a nonprofit in Santa Fe that advocates for affordable housing.
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Chainbreaker partnered with another nonprofit, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, to help locals navigate ERAP, which is managed by the Department of Finance and Administration, and has administered over $230 million.
Garcia said that while communication about the program was sometimes lacking, it was a shift from what she sees as an overly paternalistic view of government aid.
“The COVID pandemic really was able to write large where it is that government has been defunded and has been working completely lean,” she said.
But it also highlighted some of what she sees as common roadblocks in getting government assistance to those who need it.
“Because the state needed to contact the landlord, it created this other level of bureaucracy in the sense that a lot of landlords didn’t want to participate in the program,” Garcia said.
She added that landlords with a large number of units were much more likely to engage with the program because they could apply with multiple units at the same time.
David Michael Carman owns and rents out about 40 apartments in Albuquerque. He said about half of his tenants have participated in ERAP and that because the program had simpler paperwork which could be mostly completed by landlords, it was easier for tenants in large complexes to get help.
“If the tenants make individual applications, then the most capable tenants are more able to succeed with their applications,” he said.
That can leave out tenants struggling with major life events or a lot of responsibilities.
In fact, many who have worked with ERAP funds said limited paperwork and bureaucracy meant the money got out faster and helped more people.
Winter Torres is the director of the New Mexico Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which helped administer the funds across most of the state. She said housing assistance applicants often don’t have the lengthy list of documents normally required to get support. But that has been different with ERAP.
“If somebody couldn’t get pay stubs or they don’t have a bank account or something like that, they could attest that they don’t have this amount of income,” she said.
Torres said that worked out because the Department of Finance and Administration can check a person’s claims against their own records.
But she also said the funds are slated to run out in New Mexico this August, and the work her team does will wrap up at the end of June. And when that happens, they expect to see eviction numbers spike higher than they’ve seen in years.
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