Amendment considered to require state application for rental assistance funds

The Urban Affairs Committee heard testimony Feb. 11 on an amendment that would require Nebraska to apply for a second round of federal emergency rental and mortgage assistance.

Sen. Matt Hansen
Sen. Matt Hansen

Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen introduced the amendment at the hearing, which would replace the existing contents of his LB446, a bill he introduced last year to create a data system of Nebraska housing stock and funding available to housing developers.

That bill was placed on general file by the committee in 2021.

The federal government made rental assistance funds available to states last year to help households struggling due to the pandemic, Hansen said. Under the program, individuals are eligible for up to 12 months of back rent and three months of future rent — up to $20,000 — which is paid directly to their landlords.

“Recently, the state has declined to apply for a second round of this funding, leaving over $120 million on the table,” he said. “That money has already been allocated and will simply go to other states if we fail to accept it.”

Hansen said 48 other states have accepted the second round of funding, which will provide three more years of rental assistance. Nebraska already has missed the first deadline, he said, and the U.S. Treasury has extended the deadline to March 30. Current assistance is scheduled to end Sept. 30.

The governor has indicated that Nebraska will not apply for the second round because it is not needed, Hansen said, but he said the first round of funds were underutilized because of lack of promotion and an application system that was difficult to navigate.

Erin Feichtinger from Together Omaha testified in support of the proposal, saying the contention that Nebraska does not need a second round of funding is “categorically false.” She said her organization has distributed close to $8 million in federal funds in Omaha since June and is working through hundreds of requests for help from individuals who cannot make their rent.

Feichtinger said that of the approximately 11,000 applications for assistance from across the state, fewer than 850 have been flagged as possibly fraudulent, and only 20 of those have been forwarded to the Nebraska State Patrol for investigation.

In addition, she said, every legislative district has seen an increase in applications in the last few weeks. Some were for significant amounts, Feichtinger said, others not.

“There is one county that just got one application in, but that one application went to make sure a person stayed in their home and a landlord could pay their mortgage,” she said. “It all matters.”

Karen Rathke, president of the Heartland United Way in Grand Island, also testified in support. Approximately 50 percent of current applicants for emergency rental assistance are individuals who have never applied for assistance in the past, Rathke said.

“The families we serve are working families living in a fragile balance of paycheck to paycheck and struggling with the cost burden of [a lack of] affordable housing,” she said. “The second round of [rental assistance] funds would benefit thousands of Nebraska families by truly providing them a lifeline as they continue to navigate their way through the pandemic and in this time of high inflation.”

Dave Pantos, a volunteer attorney with the Nebraska Tenant Assistance Project, spoke in favor of the proposal. He said he sees approximately 60 or 70 eviction cases per day, four days a week, in Douglas County. Emergency rental funds have been the primary tool for volunteers to keep individuals in their residences since the end of the federal eviction moratorium in August of 2021, he said.

“Nebraska residents need these funds … to prevent a tsunami of homelessness in our communities,” Pantos said.

Also testifying in support was Kasey Ogle, a staff attorney at Nebraska Appleseed. Much of the inefficiency in distributing rental assistance in Nebraska can be attributed to the documentation requirements that the state has chosen to use, she said.

Many other states and the cities of Lincoln and Omaha allow individuals to “self-attest” to their qualifications for assistance, she said, which is allowed under federal rules and makes for a much more streamlined process.

Lee Will, state budget administrator, testified in opposition on behalf of Gov. Pete Ricketts. The state collaborated with several partners to distribute the $200 million Nebraska received in emergency rental assistance from the federal government in early 2021, he said, including outreach, marketing efforts and technical support.

The state currently has millions in first-round funds still available, Will said, indicating that the need for more federal funding does not exist. Will said he does not believe that the problem lies in distribution, and that moving toward a self-attestation model statewide in order to speed the application process likely would only result in more fraud.

“At some point the assistance has to end,” Will said. “It is the governor’s position that the need is going to be taken care of through the end of the year.”

The committee took no immediate action on the amendment.

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