Many applicants still in limbo with Alaska’s COVID-19 rent relief program

Long approval times and vague communication are causing frustration.
 The sign outside the Alaska Housing Finance Corporations Family Investment center
The sign outside the Alaska Housing Finance Corporations Family Investment center (KTUU)
Published: May. 6, 2021 at 6:55 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 2:45 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation is still in the process of paying out $242 million in rental assistance for Alaskans who applied and were screened as eligible earlier this year.

But, after passing the initial financial qualifications, many applicants have yet to hear from a housing specialist or get a guarantee of how much rent or utilities will be paid, and when.

“I just didn’t want my landlord thinking that we weren’t going to be able to pay rent or whatnot because we’re month-to-month at this point, so I didn’t want her thinking that she might as well just get a better tenant in here,” said Kayla McCarthy, a mom of three who, with her significant other, also cares for a nephew. Her youngest child is 3 weeks old.

The family applied months ago, and it wasn’t until last week that they received a letter letting them know they will qualify for the program that pays up to 12 months of rent and utilities, including past due rent and late fees.

McCarthy said the letter doesn’t say when her family’s eligibility begins. With no clear commitments on amounts or timelines, she and her husband, whose jobs are seasonal, scraped together payments.

“We have been paying rent out of pocket, not knowing when to accept these funds,” McCarthy said, adding “We have never missed a payment in our lives. So to put all of our eggs in the basket with this is just hard for us.”

As of Thursday, AHFC said of the more than 30,100 applications the program received, 4,078 applicants have had their bills paid, sending $16.5 million out to landlords and utilities. Of that, about $900,000 went to pay overdue rents, utilities and late payments on a single day, but there were several payments such as that, according to Stacy Barnes, AHFC’s director of governmental relations and public affairs.

Once approved, a rent relief specialist makes contact with the applicants, and updates their information. Payments made go directly to landlords or utilities, and will cover past due rents or bills plus three months forward.

About 24,000 applicants were pre-screened as qualified for the program, said Daniel Delfino, program manager with AHFC.

Families like the McCarthys, who are eligible but managed to self-pay while their application makes its way through the process, won’t be reimbursed, Delfino said. Only outstanding bills and future rent and utilities can be paid, he said.

McCarthy said she and her husband managed to make rent for March, April and May — too worried about the late fees that would be assessed, in addition to not wanting to be viewed as a financial risk to their landlord.

“If they’re not back paying, then, yeah, we’re out all of those thousands when we thought we’d have help,” she said.

The letters sent to applicants are meant to help reassure tenants and landlords that the money will come, and ask for patience.

“We are moving as fast as we possibly can,” Delfino said.

The call center is staffed with 136 people statewide, and receives between 400 and 500 calls per day, Delfino said. And his colleague, Barnes noted that only 26 of the call center staff man the phone lines, while the rest process applications. The goal is for applicants to be able to reach someone when they call, or if they have to leave a message, to get connected within one day.

Delfino encourages applicants to have conversations early with their landlords instead of waiting until the day rent is due. Alaska Housing Finance Corporation sends qualification letters out to pre-screened applicants verifying their eligibility, and says these letters can help landlords know money is on the way. Barnes said almost 14,000 people have received qualification letters. And so far, about 8,000 people have been notified of full approval, and there are more to come, Delfino said.

The program pays back due rent, late fees and overdue utilities plus the next three months worth of the same bills. Qualified applicants are eligible for 12 total months of assistance, with need re-evaluated every three months, Delfino said.

A second round of federal funding is expected to be available at some point, including assistance for homeowners, who were excluded in this first relief effort.

Delfino said the program hopes to get through all of the applications and get money out the door to landlords and utilities before the federal moratorium on evictions expires this summer.

Copyright 2021 KTUU. All rights reserved.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct discrepancies with the funding amounts in the article, and to clarify some information from AHFC..