FILE - North Carolina State Legislative Office Building

North Carolina State Legislative Office Building

(The Center Square) – North Carolina lawmakers are trying to make it easier to get COVID-19 rental assistance into landlords' hands.

The North Carolina Senate gutted an unrelated bill, House Bill 110, to allow for landlords to apply for benefits directly from the state's Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program on behalf of tenants.

The HOPE Program currently allows landlords to refer tenants to the relief program or to ask the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), which administers the program, to reach out to a tenant.

Senate Republicans expressed frustration with how much and how quickly federal money meant to help tenants and landlords is being disbursed by the state and local programs.

“It’s a tale as old as time with these emergency assistance programs: The federal government sends a pile of money to the state with a bunch of confusing rules, and administrators end up spending more time worried about the complications than finding creative solutions to overcome them,” Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said in a statement.

The NCORR said Thursday that HOPE had awarded nearly $445 million in rent and utility assistance to 101,000 North Carolina households. Of the nearly $445 million awarded, $374.6 million has been paid, the office said.

The NCORR said the program ranked second nationally in the number of households served and sixth in the amount of federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program money spent as of the latest U.S. Treasury rankings.

Senate Republicans said allowing landlords to apply for assistance on behalf of tenants is allowed under federal rules, but the NCORR disagreed.

"Allowing landlords to apply directly for rental assistance on behalf of their tenants is not only against Treasury-issued guidelines for these funds, but will also slow the program down and delay payments to landlords and utilities on behalf of tenants," NCORR spokesperson Janet Kelly-Scholle told The Center Square. "Treasury does not allow for a landlord to complete the entire application for the tenant because there are details the landlord has no way to know and verify.

"Additionally, the HOPE Program realized landlords wanted to be more involved in rental payments, and began a landlord referral program in August to address the need. Any landlord in the 88 counties that HOPE serves can complete a very brief form about their tenant, and a HOPE staff member will follow up with that tenant to get the application process started," Kelly-Scholle said.

Gov. Roy Cooper launched the HOPE Program last fall with Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, and it has been supplemented by additional federal Emergency Rental Assistance money provided through the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Senate passed HB 110 on Wednesday, 28-14. The House now must hold a concurrence vote on the legislation before it can be sent to Cooper for consideration.

The bill also would require the HOPE program to cover the cost of a hotel or motel room for eligible households, cover late fees due to a landlord, and allow for acceptance of applications submitted for only utility assistance.

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