A flickering ray of hope for families in need

By: - July 13, 2021 6:00 am

State rental assistance program stands poised to help thousands of tenants and landlords, but time is running short

North Carolina has almost never done a good job of helping people who are down on their luck or simply struggling to survive in the modern economy. The near collapse of the state’s stingiest-in-the-nation, badly under-resourced and rapidly overwhelmed unemployment insurance system last year at the height of the COVID-19 recession provided a classic example of this sorry state of affairs, but it was just the latest entry on a very long list.

Cowed and spurred on by the braying of anti-government ideologues on the political right, state lawmakers of both major political parties have long displayed a high degree of indifference to the plight of low-income families.

A decade or so ago, one Raleigh-based conservative think tank even railed at length about what it saw as – horrors! – excess generosity in the public school system’s free and reduced-price lunch program.

And, of course, in recent years, Republican majorities have stubbornly refused to expand access to health care for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable North Carolinians by blocking the expansion of Medicaid. This, despite compelling evidence that such action would save thousands of lives and inject billions of dollars into the state’s economy.

As Prof. Gene Nichol of the UNC School of Law observed in his 2019 book, Indecent Assembly: The North Carolina Legislatures’ Blueprint for the War on Democracy and Equality:

When Republicans took control of both the legislature and the governorship in 2013…low-income Tar Heels learned that there is something notably worse than being ignored by their government. They can actually be targeted by it.”

Yet another area of widespread and largely unaddressed suffering for hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of North Carolinians involves the widespread lack of access to safe, decent, and affordable housing.

As more and more middle and upper middle-income families can attest, housing prices and rents were soaring even prior to the onset of the pandemic and the recession it engendered.

And of course, during the last 16-or-so months, this problem quickly transitioned from chronic to critical. Even today, in a time of economic recovery, the number of people struggling to afford rents remains staggering.

As a North Carolina Budget & Tax Center “Prosperity Watch” report noted last week, the latest census data indicate that fully 17% of North Carolina renters (about 400,000 households) are behind on their rent.

Happily, there is an important partial solution to this crisis – the appropriately named Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program. As is noted at www.hope.nc.gov, the HOPE Program “provides rent and utility assistance to low-income renters that are experiencing financial hardship due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. The program helps prevent evictions and utility disconnections to promote housing stability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

What’s more, thanks to federal government largesse, the program currently has somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion to distribute to cover the unpaid rents of thousands of tenants.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case when it comes to the public safety net in North Carolina, the human and technical infrastructure to distribute the available funds – dollars that in this case would benefit struggling landlords, keep people in their homes, and percolate beneficially through the economy – are another matter.

For years, despite the presence of award-winning programs like the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund, the legislature has meted out only relatively tiny sums to construct and help maintain truly affordable rental housing.

And emergency assistance to help pay rent during a crisis? Forget about it.

And so it was that the Cooper administration faced the daunting task of, effectively, creating a brand new safety net program out of whole cloth and on the fly in the middle of an unprecedented crisis.

That the program the administration ultimately fashioned is up and running effectively is an impressive feat, but the hard truth right now is that getting all the money distributed will be a herculean task.

Thanks to the impending conclusion to the federal eviction moratorium on July 31 (and the cruel refusal of Republican members of the Council of State to go along with Gov. Cooper’s recommendation to extend the state moratorium) thousands of struggling families will likely soon find themselves receiving a sheriff’s notice simply because neither they nor their landlord even knew of the HOPE program’s existence or how to apply.

This is an absurd situation. With such a well-funded program in place, there is simply no reason for tens of thousands of North Carolinians to be facing eviction shortly for nonpayment of rent. And if GOP lawmakers had any interest in making our public safety net work effectively, rather than merely tossing monkey wrenches into it at every opportunity, they’d immediately halt all evictions, and help support a massive effort to get every HOPE Program dollar distributed.

Sadly, that won’t be the case.

To learn more (and spread the word) about the HOPE program and its easy-to-complete application for assistance, visit www.hope.nc.gov.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.