Federal emergency rent aid is aimed at avoiding evictions and stabilizing housing for renters set back by the pandemic. (Getty Images)
BELLEVUE — Just a few days into accepting applications for a new batch of emergency rent aid, the State of Nebraska already has fielded more than 600 requests from 55 counties.
“It’s been insanely busy,” Tanya Gifford of Lift Up Sarpy County said Monday between visits with clients seeking the federal assistance.
Her organization is among those helping the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority in the distribution of $48 million in pandemic-related rent and utility aid. The funds are to go to the state’s 91 smaller, more rural counties.
Douglas and Lancaster Counties were large enough to apply for and to receive (which they did) their own second-round allotments of Emergency Rental Assistance authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act and funneled through the U.S. Treasury Department.
Funding for the 91 counties had become weighted in controversy, however, as then-Gov. Pete Ricketts refused to tap ERA II dollars that the federal government had set aside for them. Ricketts said the pandemic was over and that Nebraska should guard against becoming a “welfare state.”
State lawmakers got involved, but the Legislature fell one vote short of overriding a gubernatorial veto on a bill that would have forced Ricketts’ hand.
Gov. Jim Pillen, upon taking office earlier this year, bucked his predecessor’s stance and accepted what was left of the original $120 million that was to go to the state’s smaller counties.
A spokeswoman at the time said that Pillen recognized that housing stability and affordability issues still existed in rural Nebraska and that accepting the funds would help address those issues.
By that time, certain deadlines had been missed and much of the original allocation had been redirected to other states.
Thursday, NIFA and statewide advocacy organizations began accepting applications for the $48 million still available for the 91 counties.
Information on how to apply for the ERA II dollars can be found online at NebraskaRentHelp.org. People can also call 1-844-429-6575. The call center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Help in applying can be obtained through a Community Collaborative partner, either in person or by phone.
How to apply
Information on how to apply for the ERA II dollars can be found online at NebraskaRentHelp.org.
People can also call 1-844-429-6575. The call center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Help in applying can be obtained through a Community Collaborative partner, either in person or by phone.
“Keeping people in their homes and ensuring they have access to necessary utilities is vital to maintaining healthy communities,” said Shannon Harner, executive director of NIFA, which is managing the distribution process. “We strongly encourage anyone who believes they may be eligible to apply.”
To qualify, an applicant must have household income at or below 80% of area median income, be a legal resident of the United States and rent their primary residence in one of the 91 counties.
Applicants also must demonstrate that they had a financial hardship during the pandemic, she said.
Households can receive up to $30,000 for past-due and future rent and utility payments. A household may not receive more than 18 months of total combined assistance from the first and second emergency rental aid rounds.
And no more than $4,000 of assistance can be applied toward past-due utilities.
Harner said Sarpy County is heavily represented in the more than 600 applications received from 55 counties as of Monday afternoon. “We’re pretty happy with that (overall) number so far,” she said.
Housing advocates said the busy pace in the first days of the application process reflects pent-up demand and need. Sarpy County, for example, has been averaging about 18 eviction cases per week, Gifford said.
Gifford said that the application portal is working smoothly and that the call center has been effective in responding to questions.
That’s a change from how many advocates, renters and landlords described management of the first round of emergency rental aid. They said the previous contractor, Deloitte, an audit and financial services firm, created a cumbersome online application process that kept many needy Nebraskans from accessing the aid.
The latest rent and utility assistance is to be distributed until the dollars run out, or until September 2025. The funds will not need to be paid back.
Payments will be made directly to landlords and utility companies, Harner said.
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