LINCOLN — Bucking the stance of his predecessor, Gov. Jim Pillen has accepted what’s left of millions of dollars in emergency rent aid that the federal government had set aside for Nebraska’s 91 smaller counties.
Earlier refusal by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts to tap the pandemic-related fund meant missed deadlines and the redirection of much of the original $120 million to other states.
However, $48 million remained as long as the new governor reached for it before September 2025 — which he did, a Pillen aide confirmed this week.
Now state officials are busy building a program to deliver that second round of Emergency Rental Assistance to struggling Nebraskans. They expect to start accepting and vetting requests in September.
“Gov. Pillen recognized that housing stability and affordability issues still exist across rural Nebraska, outside of its cities,” said Pillen spokeswoman Laura Strimple. “Applying for these funds will help address those issues.”
‘A long road’
Those who have battled for more than a year for the release of the federal funds are relieved, and grateful.
“It’s been a long road,” said Karen Rathke, president of Heartland United Way of Grand Island.
“I’m very, very happy that we’ve seen the light and accepted the money,” said Erin Feichtinger, policy director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha. “There is a real need for housing assistance in those 91 counties. A lot of people are hurting; this money can do some real good.”
Pillen’s acceptance of the ERA II money caps a saga that began around the start of 2022 when Ricketts steadfastly refused the second tranche.
Here’s a recap:
Saying that the pandemic was over and that Nebraska should guard against becoming a “welfare state,” Ricketts declined the money. He called it the kind of “irresponsible spending” that ushered in “record inflation.”
State senators who disagreed sought intervention from the full Legislature in 2022, but they fell one vote short of overriding a gubernatorial veto on a bill that would have forced Ricketts’ hand.
Even outreach from Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo had no sway. Adeyemo and others reiterated that the funds had been specifically set aside for Nebraska’s 91 counties outside of Douglas and Lancaster — and would be reassigned to other counties and states if Nebraska’s governor did not draw down on the account.
As deadlines passed, the bulk of the funding indeed went elsewhere.
Douglas and Lancaster Counties and the Cities of Omaha and Lincoln were large enough that they could, and did, apply for and obtain their own ERA II funding.
When Pillen took office in January, advocates resumed the fight for the $48 million that was still salvageable and waiting, at least until fall of 2025, in the U.S. Treasury.
State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha introduced new legislation, co-sponsored by Grand Island Sen. Ray Aguilar and Sen. Jen Day of Gretna, to require the governor to access the funds, but the measure never reached the full Legislature for debate.
Pillen’s administration applied on its own, and funds arrived in mid-May, Strimple said.
NIFA to lead rollout
She said the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority is handling the distribution process.
“As designed, this program will prioritize work and focus on the disabled and those on fixed incomes, so that it is a hand up and not a hand-out,” Strimple told the Nebraska Examiner in a statement.
She said Pillen wanted the money to be put to work in Nebraska, and not sent to other states like California.
Cavanaugh, who learned from a reporter that the funds had arrived, said he was relieved and pleased the federal funds were forthcoming to help ward off evictions.
Amber Marker, executive director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association, said she was a bit perplexed and frustrated that progress on the funding situation has been rather “hush-hush.”
She said more information and notice helps front-line advocates prepare and inform clients.
Marker said, however, that she is encouraged that NIFA is to lead the program, saying the state housing agency did well in handling a separate emergency assistance fund that focused on homeowners.
Marker was among advocates who voiced frustration with the way the first round of ERA funding was managed for the 91 counties. They said contractor Deloitte, an audit and financial services firm, created an online application process so cumbersome and strict that many needy Nebraskans in those rural areas could not access the aid, or gave up trying.
Disbursement was slow going. Of the state’s first round of $158 million for the 91 counties, the Ricketts administration ended up shifting about $97 million, largely to Omaha and Lincoln, saying the state’s larger urban metropolitan communities had greater demand.
Community partners key
In the second round, NIFA executive director Shannon Harner foresees more collaboration with nonprofits and other community organizations that work closest with struggling renters.
“While we understand the importance of compliance, our focus is doing what the program is intended to do: help people,” she said.
First priority for the next round of funding is to be given to eligible applicants who are seniors, disabled or victims of domestic violence, Harner said. The next priority groups are households with at least one person working 30 hours a week and families with children.
Emergency aid is available for utilities as well as rent.
Applicants must meet certain income requirements and show that financial hardship occurred during or due to the pandemic, Harner said.
New to the second round of ERA is an option that pleases most: The last 25% of the emergency funds can be used on affordable housing development.
That opens the door, Harner said, to housing assistance that has a longer impact.
A chunk is expected to go to housing stability and support services, as well as administrative costs.
Feichtinger said advocates will monitor the rollout of the program and hopes the Pillen administration is open to fixes or improvements during the process, if necessary.
Carolyn Pospisil, executive director of Housing Foundation for Sarpy County, said clients are getting back on their feet after the worst of COVID-19 and need help.
“These people are hardworking members of the community, and the release of this money creates housing stability in their lives which is vital to their success,” Pospisil said.
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