​​COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio rental assistance programs are facing scrutiny as $104 million of unused federal funds are being reallocated, but state officials said they are hopeful the money won’t go to other states.

What You Need To Know

  • Officials are hopeful the funds will come back to Ohio

  • State programs facing scrutiny for pace of distribution

  • Ohio is working on an online portal for assistance applications

Housing advocates said the state made it too difficult for renters to access the pandemic rental assistance, which is designed to help those who became unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19 or who meet other eligibility criteria

Nina Turner, who is running to represent Cleveland in Congress and co-chaired Sen. Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign, said Ohio’s failure to quickly administer these funds means more residents will face eviction.

In January 2021, the U.S. Treasury awarded more than $560 million of rental assistance to the state and sent about $221 million directly to certain cities and counties in Ohio. The funds were part of the first round of stimulus support for emergency rental relief, known as ERA1, which totals $25 billion nationally. 

The Biden administration said it has been working to accelerate state and local grantees’ delivery of the funds, and it warned states that funds could be reallocated if they’re not used.

Ohio opted to distribute the funds the state received through regional community action agencies in all 88 counties. 

Government agencies came under heavy criticism in August amid reports that only a fraction of the stimulus dollars had been spent. Progressive groups argued that bureaucratic processes stood in the way of individuals and families accessing the assistance to address urgent housing crises. 

Why some of Ohio's rental assistance funds are being reallocated

In Sept. 2021 the Treasury was required to begin reallocating “excess” ERA1 funds. States that have exhausted their rental assistance money could stand to receive reallocated funds.

Because the state of Ohio had not used or obligated 65% of its funds, it had to submit a plan to the Treasury in November to outline how it will improve its rental assistance program. The plan was first reported by WKYC. 

In the plan, officials said Ohio would launch a statewide website for residents to apply for assistance — a key part of its approach to using the funds more quickly. But that site is not yet online and officials said the vendor has yet to be selected.

Mark Lawson, president of the Community Action Agency of Cincinnati-Hamilton County, said they are getting about 500 calls per day for assistance, in addition to online applications. 

“We're expending over $500,000 a week on behalf of folks. Overall, we've received about $60 million in emergency assistance, and we've helped about 7,000 families,” Lawson said. “There's still a lot of people hurting out there that need help.” 

Lawson said their struggle is hiring people to process applications, but he hopes that they’ll get approval soon to increase pay from $17 per hour to $20.

Regarding the reallocation process, he said it would be inexcusable for Ohio’s funds to go to other states. 

“Sending even $50 back to Treasury is too much,” he said. 

Officials hopeful funds won't go to other states

According to a person familiar with the matter, Ohio officials believe the $104 million that’s being reallocated will come back to Ohio; however, it’s likely to be sent directly to cities and counties rather than to the state. 

The Ohio Department of Development, the state agency responsible for Ohio’s rental assistance distribution, said officials are working to keep the money from going to other states. Todd Walker, a spokesperson for the agency, noted that Cuyahoga County announced last week that it expects to receive an additional $50 million in rental assistance and “wraparound” support services. 

“Currently $104,331,800.07 is being reallocated,” Walker said. “Based on Treasury’s information, the first $3.6 million that was reallocated remained in Ohio. We are working with local governments to try to keep funds within Ohio for the additional reallocation. It’s our understanding that additional reallocated funds are staying in Ohio based on Cuyahoga County’s recent announcement.”

On Monday, the Ohio Controlling Board approved a $25 million appropriation request to provide funding for rental and utility payment relief. The request stated that funds will be administered through the forthcoming online portal for Ohio residents to apply for rental assistance. 

Other states have used a statewide website as their primary approach for distributing the rental assistance, including a number of states that have used all of their ERA1 funds, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which reports that Ohio’s state program ranks 40th of U.S. states’ for the percentage of ERA1 dollars used.

Phil Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, said there are certain advantages to the local approach that Ohio has relied on to date. 

“The state is working on a statewide portal, but there's a problem with that, and that is, most people who come in to see us don't have all the documentation when they start, so we keep it open for them and say, ‘here's what you need, bring it back.’ Statewide portals usually aren't set up to do that,” he told Spectrum News during an interview. 

In a subsequent message, Cole clarified that at this stage it’s difficult to predict what capabilities the portal will have, because the vendor has yet to be selected. He said if the state launches the portal and continues to direct funds to community action agencies, that could be the best case scenario.

Cole said he believes that community action agencies in Ohio are well-equipped to use the funds responsibly and to help people get out of poverty. 

He shared a recent example: A man living in his car and working full-time with two kids came into a local agency office seeking rental assistance. He wasn’t eligible for the program because he doesn’t have a lease, so he isn’t technically behind on rent, but the agency still wanted to help.

They were able to find him a place to stay in a hotel while they looked for a full-time apartment for him to live in, Cole said. Had he applied to a statewide portal, he would’ve been denied. 

Calls for a 'streamlined' application process 

The Turner campaign said there needs to be “simple, streamlined and universal” programs for residents behind on rent to access the aid. 

“Over $100M dollars in rent relief sits in limbo as 250,000+ Ohioans face eviction. Struggling tenants were promised rent forgiveness, legal help and protections during a pandemic that hit the most vulnerable low-income workers. We cannot let endless bureaucracy and red tape put people's lives in danger and leave entire communities vulnerable to eviction,” the campaign said in a statement to Spectrum News.

Officials have not said when the statewide portal will launch or how of much Ohio’s rental assistance funds will be available through the portal.

In addition to ERA1, congress approved a second round of emergency rental assistance, ERA2, which totals $21.6 billion. Cole and Lawson argued that the state should continue to use community action agencies for ERA2 funds. 

Cole said the challenge with distributing the hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds Ohio is receiving is finding the balance between “being fast enough to make sure people don't get evicted,” while also taking the time to make sure applications are legitimate. In January, one local agency received 34 applications believed to be fraudulent, he said. The cases, which officials believe came from the same organization, were turned over to law enforcement. 

“This big fraud organization usually asked for over $20,000,” Cole said. “You’ve got to stop that because we need to have responsible use of tax dollars. We're not going to just blow through this just to get the money out, as some people want us to do.”

Cole also said the community action agency's program is facing undue criticism from some who are comparing the pace of the distribution to the efforts of the cities and counties that received rental assistance directly from the federal government. Some of the major city and county rental assistance programs report that they’ve exhausted their ERA1 funds. 

But Cole said the cities and counties had a 6-8 month head start on the state distribution that goes through community action agencies. That’s because the Ohio General Assembly has to appropriate the state funds, and the Department of Development also needed to work out contracts with all the community action agencies. 

“I'm not sure what the problem is. There's not some kind of eviction epidemic going on here,” Cole said. “The eviction rate in Ohio is still lower than it was in 2019. Most people that come to us that have the correct documentation are paid within 30 days — but you’ve got to have the right documentation.”

According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks eviction cases in Ohio’s three largest cities, Columbus has seen above-average eviction filings in each of the last four months. In Cincinnati, filings are still slightly below the pre-pandemic averages, while eviction filings are significantly below average in Cleveland. 

Lawson said that in Hamilton County Municipal Court, the eviction dockets are full. 

Besides accelerating rental assistance distribution, he said many of these evictions could be avoided if judges allowed defendants facing eviction cases to stay in their homes if rental assistance is sent to landlords. While some local governments have passed “pay-to-stay” ordinances meant to do just that, he said their experience has been that enforcement is spotty or nonexistent.