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As Nonprofit Disburses Rent Relief, Leader Says Government Can Make It Easier


The CDC issued a new eviction moratorium this past week. The goal is to keep people housed in areas with high rates of COVID-19 transmission. Since the new moratorium doesn't expire until early October, tenants around the country have a few extra weeks to access some of the roughly $47 billion in federal rental assistance. But getting that money to renters has not been easy. And for the millions who may face eviction, the situation is dire.

LISA ISAY: A lot of them are just desperate. And many of them have gotten to the stage where they're frightened. They don't even want to read, you know, the notice on the door or take the call or go to their rent office and try to explain what's happening. They're just afraid that, you know, they can't stop what seems like it's an inevitable process.

MCCAMMON: That's Lisa Isay. She's the executive director of Bridge Ministries in Birmingham, Ala. It's a nonprofit that provides services to people experiencing homelessness and eviction. Throughout the country, groups like hers have been asked to help distribute the funds. But she says there are challenges.

ISAY: It's the logistics of it. You know, when you have to have someone come in and they tell you they need something, that's step one. You still have to go through the documentation process of showing everything on paper. You have to get the cooperation of the person they're renting from. That's not always easy. We've had out-of-town, out-of-state property owners that we've had tremendous difficulty getting in touch with sometimes, even if they want the help. You can't just start writing checks with no due diligence.

MCCAMMON: And that's one place she says the government can help, by providing tax information or other data that can speed up the process of getting money to people.

ISAY: One thing that would help me - and this is just me personally - is having the different federal systems give us folks to communicate with, because oddly enough, we sometimes need to get in touch with a person running a different system and being able to have a line of communication set up so that we can say, is this person who they say they are, for example. This property is actually in existence. That's not a vacant lot, you know? Weird things that you wouldn't think of, we have to check all that. And it takes time.

MCCAMMON: But time isn't something renters have much of. Isay says her group has been working with local judges to prevent eviction when possible. Still, despite the challenges, she tells us that she's happy about the people she has been able to help. And that has been a silver lining.

ISAY: Well, we have a family that we assisted recently. It was a woman with several children. She had been sick with COVID. Two of her children contracted COVID last year. So, of course, she'd gotten behind on everything and was barely even feeding them, let alone paying rent and utilities. And we were able to go back and catch up all of her utilities as well as her rent. And she is - got a job working online now, which is great. That's what she needed. She needed something to help catch her up and then sustain her for a little longer until she was able to get pretty much back on track. And that's what this is designed to do.

MCCAMMON: That was Lisa Isay, executive director of Bridge Ministries in Birmingham, Ala., talking about the challenges of distributing federal rental assistance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.