FILE - Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City

Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City

(The Center Square) – Legislation to provide money to help an estimated 200,000 Missouri households struggling to pay rent and utilities is on Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

The Missouri Senate Monday unanimously approved House Bill 16, sponsored by Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage. If signed by Parson's, it will send $324 million in federal stimulus money to the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) to assist renters and landlords and to help those who cannot make utility payments because of financial constraints imposed by the pandemic.

The measure was introduced Jan. 14 and passed through the House in a 144-0 vote two weeks later.

Parson is expected to sign the bill into law within days. MHDC Director Kip Stetzle said the agency will begin accepting applications for assistance through MHDC’s online portal shortly after.

"These dollars will not only help with rental assistance, but with utility assistance," Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said during Monday’s swift Senate adoption of HB 16.

"We are eager to get it out there. We would like to move it on an expedited basis," said Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, who sponsored the Senate version of HB 16.

State officials estimate the number of Missouri households at risk of eviction is between 150,000 and 230,000. Their combined estimated rent shortfall is between $294 million and $417 million.

Nearly 18,000 eviction filings have been processed in Missouri since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in mid-March 2020, including nearly 5,000 in St. Louis and St. Louis County, according to Eviction Lab, based at Princeton University, which tracks filings across the country.

HB 16 and the ERAP won praise and quick adoption also because it offers assistance for landlords who have been housing tenants in arrears because of the federal eviction ban extended by President Joe Biden.

The $324 million is part of the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) authorized Jan. 5 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to assist households that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of that $324 million, $311 million is from ERAP, which earmarks significantly more for housing assistance than the $28 million Missouri received from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.

That $311 million is from a total potential ERAP allocation of $410 million. Cities with populations of more than 200,000 may be able to apply directly for the remaining $100 million.

Under ERAP’s guidelines, households eligible for the relief are those with a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median.

The aid can provide up to 12 months of rent and utility assistance, ongoing rent and utilities for up to three months, and help to cover missed rent or utilities since March 1.

The Treasury Department requires 90 percent of ERAP allocations go to rent and utility assistance with 10 percent set aside for “housing stability services,” such as case management, eviction prevention services and administrative costs.

Under HB 16, households with one or more individuals who qualify for unemployment benefits, “or have experienced a reduction in income, incurred significant costs” or “experienced financial hardship because of COVID-19 or can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability,” would also be potentially eligible for ERAP assistance.

There is currently a federal moratorium on evictions, which President Joe Biden extended for tenants who have fallen behind on rent because of the pandemic.

In its Jan. 26 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, the only concerns raised about the ERAP process involved its applications, which lawmakers said can take between five and 10 hours to complete.