WATERTOWN — For tenants who have been unable to pay rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new federal aid program may offer some relief.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, run by the U.S. Treasury Department, set aside nearly $50 billion for rental assistance nationwide.
Under the program, households making 80% of the area median income — $40,253 for Watertown, according to the U.S. Census — can apply to have 12 months of their unpaid rent and some utility bills paid off.
Applicants can also have up to three months of their upcoming rent and utilities covered, and participating landlords must agree not to evict a tenant who applies for the aid for the next 12 months.
Some communities got direct allocations for their aid, but Jefferson County has a high-enough population that residents can instead apply to receive aid from a federal fund, which has $2.7 billion allocated for the New York state program.
Applications for the program opened June 1 and will be accepted online until the program closes.
Teresa W. Gaffney, commissioner of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services, told county legislators at the county Board of Legislators meeting June 1 that 86 landlords responded to an open DSS survey asking how much money they lost in unpaid rent during the pandemic.
“I know we have more than 86 landlords in Jefferson County,” Mrs. Gaffney said. “But a majority of those who responded, 75 or so, had lost rent during the pandemic, for a total of about $1.8 million.”
On June 1, county legislators approved a secondary part of the emergency rental assistance program, a $240,000 allocation to be used for advertising, outreach and to assist households in the application process.
Legislators approved a resolution that passed that money to the Watertown Urban Mission, a local nonprofit organization that assists people suffering from housing instability, homelessness and poverty.
That total was a point of contention for some legislators. Legislator Jeremiah J. Maxon, R-Adams, expressed concern at the June 1 meeting that the county was moving too fast to pass nearly a quarter of a million dollars off to a local agency without considering what can be done with it.
“As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, I don’t feel I’ve been able to do my due diligence,” he said. “I don’t think that I’ve gotten enough information about what other agencies could be a good fit for this money.”
Mr. Maxon said he would be more interested in seeing the resolution passed back to the Health and Human Services Committee and have other local agencies step forward to share how they might be able to use the funding to connect residents with assistance.
Mrs. Gaffney said expediency was the most important issue here, and the Watertown Urban Mission is already well-suited and ready to begin assisting people.
With applications opening July 1, Mrs. Gaffney said she was concerned a delay in setting up ways to connect people with the support would keep those most in need of it away.
“Applications are already being accepted,” she said. “The first 30 days are dealing with priority populations ... those will be processed first, after the first 30 days, it’s first come, first served.”
Veterans, people in households making 50% or less of the area median income, and those with drug court cases pending or reports of domestic violence in their homes are considered priority populations.
The board moved to pass the resolution and authorized the Watertown Urban Mission to begin advertising for the emergency rental assistance program across the county and begin helping people apply for assistance.
Dawn M. Cole, executive director of the Watertown Urban Mission, said the organization is already helping people with their applications for assistance, and they’re getting ready to begin helping more.
The program is a complex one. Tenant applicants will need personal identification, Social Security information, proof of their rental amount and residency, proof of income and a copy of a gas or electric bill if they’re applying to have utilities covered.
They also need the cooperation of their landlords, who will receive any money from the program directly.
Landlords can apply on their own as well, without the cooperation of the tenants who owe them money.
For a landlord applicant, they’ll need a completed W-9 tax form, an executed lease or evidence of an ongoing agreement with the tenant, documentation of rent due and banking information.
“We’ll be hiring several part-time, temporary positions who will provide support to tenants and landlords through the application process,” Mrs. Cole said. “We’ll also be doing outreach and setting up sites throughout Jefferson County to make it very convenient for people to apply.”
Mrs. Cole said the program is still only moving forward with applications from people in priority populations, but is accepting all applications.
She encouraged anyone who has unpaid rent to begin pulling together their applications now and submit them as soon as possible.
For those who need assistance with putting their applications together, she said the Watertown Urban Mission is ready and able to help today.
“Give us a call at the mission, or drop by the CARE Center, our brand new initiative that brings together six agencies all overseeing housing programming,” she said. “We’re ready to help.”
The CARE Center, located at 247 Factory St., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and the Urban Mission can be reached by phone at 315-782-8440.