Millions in N.C. housing assistance still unspent as state makes changes to speed help

Millions in N.C. housing assistance still unspent as state makes changes to speed help
Millions of dollars in rental assistance sit unspent in a program designed to help North Carolinian residents catch up on rent and utility bills. (Source: WAFF)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The North Carolina office in charge of administering a program designed to help people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic catch up on rent and utility bills is changing how it handles cases, as more than $60 million meant to help people sits unspent.

Governor Roy Cooper announced the HOPE program last fall. The program would use federal money to make grants to people who were impacted by the pandemic and unable to pay their rent and utility bills.

The initial allocation for the program was $160 million. Just $94 million had been disbursed by the program as of Friday, according to staff at the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which oversees the HOPE grants.

Laura Hogshead, who leads NCORR, said another $26 million is ready for payment and an additional $20 million had been awarded, for a total of $140 million having been disbursed, ready to be disbursed or awarded but not yet ready for payment.

The figures represent a jump in activity for the program since early February, when just $42 million in checks had been cut.

But many tenants and the landlords who are awaiting money from the program still don’t have money and haven’t been able to get answers.

Jamie Powell rents out a house his family owns in Burke County. Powell provided documents showing his tenant was approved for a HOPE grant in November. But communication dried up after that.

There was no number available to call and check on the status of the money. So Powell and his tenant had no choice but to wait.

“You’re just sitting here at the whims of a government with a bureaucracy that is so deep that we didn’t even have any recourse to contact anyone,” Powell told WBTV.

“There was no customer service line or anything. So not only us, but our renter, was, you know, kind of just stuck not knowing anything.”

Powell said his tenant finally got word last week that money would be on its way in the next two weeks.

Hogshead, who runs the office that administers the grant, said changes have been made to the program aimed at speeding up distribution of money and increasing customer service.

The biggest change is that NCORR took over managing all of the HOPE grant files. Previously, the state agency was partnering with nonprofit organizations across the state for case management.

“Sometimes the payment was delayed because we were working through that partner,” Hogshead said.

“Now that we’ve taken all the files back, I think you can see the increased speed because we’re able to issue those checks as a state agency.”

Hogshead also said NCORR was working to set up a call center so people could be connected with their caseworkers by phone.

These changes come as the HOPE program receives additional federal funds and looks to continue as people continue to reel from the pandemic.

“This is obviously a program that is going to be a marathon and not a spring,” Hogshead said.

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