Omaha tries to inform diverse populations about emergency rent assistance with ads in Spanish and Karen, along with English. This bus was driving along South Omaha’s 24th Street. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — The City of Omaha is coming off a record-busting month for the amount of federal emergency aid it has distributed so far to renters set back by the pandemic.
That nearly $9 million, doled out in May, is just a slice of roughly $65 million Omaha has allocated in rent and utility grants since the launch early last year of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Authorities say the demand is a sign of still-lingering need for housing assistance in a city that has become Nebraska’s biggest distributor of the federal aid intended to help stave off evictions.
But a new Creighton University analysis shows that not everyone has had an equal shot at the help.
Pierce Greenberg, assistant professor of social studies, examined Omaha’s ERAP process and found that South Omaha — and its sizable immigrant population — has been underserved based on the area’s needs and demographics.
“South Omaha sticks out,” Greenberg said in describing unmet gaps revealed in his research, which was funded by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It just jumped off the map.”
Citizenship requirement raises questions
Underlying Greenberg’s analysis was a national Urban Institute report that drew upon multiple factors — including income, public assistance, unemployment and housing instability — to identify neighborhoods most likely to be in need of rental assistance. Greenberg compared the “predicted need” with where the emergency assistance actually went after the city’s vetting process.
A key takeaway: Of Douglas County’s 12 most underserved census tracts revealed in his report, 11 were in South Omaha.
Among likely reasons for those gaps, said Greenberg and South Omaha representatives, is that Omaha and Douglas County governments require applicants to have U.S. legal status. They said the underserved South Omaha census tracts have a sizable number of undocumented persons, and the citizenship query, along with language barriers, probably were deterrents to seeking help.
Furthermore, the situation exposed a disparity in how governments across Nebraska apply the legal status question when determining who gets the federal emergency rental and utility aid.
The City of Lincoln and Lancaster County, in contrast to Omaha and Douglas County, do not ask about U.S. citizenship status.
Like Omaha, the State of Nebraska — which allocates ERAP funding to the rest of the state’s 91 smaller counties — demands proof of legal status.
‘Smacks of discrimination’
South Omaha Latino activist Ben Salazar said the difference in eligibility standards “smacks of discrimination.” He is mulling legal action and has requested a meeting with managers of the Omaha program after learning of the situation from community members who sought help with housing expenses.
“There has got to be a better way to administer these funds so that the families who need the help can get the help, regardless of status,” Salazar said in a letter to Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH), the contractor the city hired to manage the rent assistance program.
Lina Traslaviña Stover, executive director of the South Omaha-based Heartland Workers Center, said undocumented workers and their families are among populations most harmed by the pandemic.
Last year, she said, an “angel fund” launched by private philanthropic sources helped keep some of the area’s undocumented households afloat. Stover said that assistance apparently ran out and is no longer available to her clients.
A statement from Mayor Jean Stothert’s Office said the proof of legal status is based on state law, “so the requirement will remain.”
Shannon Harner of the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, which provides outreach assistance to the state’s 91 smaller counties, said state government officials came to the same conclusion.
Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration has held steady on such a requirement for public benefits.
Thousands of evictions likely averted
Lincoln authorities interpret the state law differently as it applies to emergency aid, said Dan Marvin, director of Lincoln’s Urban Development Department, and Jeff Chambers of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center on Children, Families and the Law. The two entities oversee ERAP for Lincoln and Lancaster County.
Chambers said Treasury Department guidelines on the program do not require legal status. He said Lincoln authorities chose not to add that additional barrier.
To be considered for the financial assistance, applicants must answer a host of other questions and pass various income and eligibility thresholds.
“I think all of us would like to serve those who are undocumented but we have legal departments that may or may not be allowing it,” Lisa Vukov of Omaha’s MACCH said during a webinar recorded early on in the program.
Vukov said in a recent interview that the screening process has uncovered potential fraud cases unrelated to immigration status, and those have been turned over to authorities. She said May proved to be the highest payout month for Omaha so far, adding that it was an indication of continued need.
A worry still remains that the program is a temporary Band-aid on larger problems related to housing affordability and poverty. – Pierce Greenberg, Creighton University
A worry still remains that the program is a temporary Band-aid on larger problems related to housing affordability and poverty.
– Pierce Greenberg, Creighton University
Greenberg, in his “Delaying the Eviction Wave” report, cited sources that said non-citizens in Omaha make up about 14% of people living in poverty, yet are 7% of the city’s population.
“Therefore it is reasonable to assume that a significant need for rental assistance exists among undocumented residents in South Omaha (and other neighborhoods),” he said.
Despite the gaps, Greenberg’s findings indicate that, overall, ERAP funds covered rent for about 7,400 Omaha households between April 2021 and April 2022, meaning the program likely helped prevent thousands of evictions.
“The program, on average, is reaching the neighborhoods that it should be reaching,” Greenberg said.
An area of North Omaha had the greatest concentration of ERAP use, he said. Downtown, with its high proportion of renters, also had a high concentration, along with neighborhoods west of 72nd Street containing large apartment complexes.
For perspective, Greenberg said, more than twice as many Omaha households benefited from rental assistance in the last year than the average number of yearly evictions in Douglas County from 2012 to 2019.
According to his analysis, the average monthly rent of a person seeking assistance in Omaha was $1,035. About 56% of Omaha households receiving the aid made less than 30% of area median income.
In Lincoln and Lancaster County, roughly 70% of recipients so far earned less than 30% of the area median income, Marvin said.
The average amount of rental assistance per approved application in Omaha was $4,311, which covered about four months, said Greenberg’s report, which was based on data obtained through public records requests.
Landlords and tenants could apply for up to 12 months of past due rent and three months into the future.
In all, the study noted, the ERAP has offered a lifeline to many and has mostly been effective at delaying the “eviction wave” many advocates feared.
At the same time, Greenberg said, the evaluation underscores how many households were in need the past year and the high monthly rents many said they pay.
Said Greenberg: “A worry still remains that the program is a temporary Band-aid on larger problems related to housing affordability and poverty.”
Deadlines loom for funding
Deadlines loom on some Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds, and Nebraska officials are urging those in need to apply by September.
Omaha has about $35 million yet to be allocated of about $100 million received, according to Mayor Jean Stothert’s Office. Stothert said the city plans to seek even more federal ERAP funds to offer Omahans in pandemic-related financial straits.
Douglas County residents outside of Omaha have so far received nearly $5 million in the emergency rental and utility funding, with about $1.6 million yet to be awarded by the year’s end, said Jane Gordon of Christian Outreach Program Elkhorn, which manages the program for communities such as Bennington, Ralston and Valley.
To date in the state’s 91 counties outside Douglas and Lancaster, about $22 million has been distributed to eligible applicants, Harner said. About $24 million is left. She said the state recently decided to redirect about $15 million of those remaining funds to nonprofits that can provide “housing stability” services.
Gov. Pete Ricketts earlier rejected about $120 million that the federal government had allotted for those 91 counties in a second round of ERAP funding.
Ricketts, in declining the money, said Nebraska was over the COVID emergency and should guard against becoming a “welfare” state. The U.S. Treasury Department has said a chunk of the aid rejected by the governor might go to Omaha and Lincoln.
Lincoln so far has distributed nearly $30 million to its needy residents, said Dan Marvin of the city’s Urban Development Department. On average lately, the city has distributed about $500,000 a week of the emergency aid, and Marvin expects that flow to continue through the rest of the year.
For the next installment of federal ERAP funding, he said, Lincoln and Lancaster County plan a more stringent eligibility process that focuses more on applicants on the brink of eviction.
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