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Amid coronavirus-related layoffs, housing officials raise concerns

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Across Montana, housing officials are responding to an increasing number of people concerned about how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage come April 1.

With many of the state’s largest communities closing restaurants, bars, and casinos in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, many service workers have been laid off or furloughed. Already, the tourism industry, the second-largest sector of Montana’s economy, has expressed concerns about potential disruptions of business.

“This is moving really quickly,” said Tara Rice, director of the Montana Department of Commerce. “Looking across the whole economy, we don’t have wide-ranging numbers or hard data. What we know is what we’re hearing anecdotally.”

Montana Housing, an arm of the Department of Commerce, released guidelines for its housing partners that recommend working directly with homeowners with the goal of keeping families in their homes. The department will also work with voucher program applicants remotely to process eligibility assessments. “Workers are in different financial situations than they were this winter,” Rice said.

The federal government is considering writing checks to all Americans, and is discussing other forms of federal assistance. All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation voted for an aid package that includes paid sick leave and emergency leave. As the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and some state governments and communities, have moved to halt evictions, Montana has yet to take that step. Gov. Steve Bullock has implemented measures to make unemployment benefits easier to access and announced the availability of emergency loans for businesses through the Small Business Administration. 

“We’re keeping all policy options on the table,” Rice said.

Homeword, based in Missoula, houses more than 2,000 people in 11 communities statewide. Most people who live in the properties participate in the workforce, including service industry jobs. Those are likely people who would be affected by layoffs and impacts to the job market, said Andrea Davis, Homeword executive director. Most Homeword properties are managed by Tamarack Property Management. 

Davis said Homeword is working to connect residents with financial resources, and intends to be flexible with impacted residents. She said the organization has noted an increase in calls from people seeking assistance.

“Most people are starting to look at, ‘what happens if,’” Davis said. “We’re too early in this crisis to see what the effect is going to be. Rent is not due until April 1. It’s better to reach out to your property management company and be proactive in these situations.”

Still, even affordable housing companies don’t have unlimited flexibility.

“Homeword and Tamarack are in the business of housing people, not in the business of evicting people, but we have to have a balance,” Davis said. “If people aren’t paying rent, we can’t pay our mortgage. We have to reasonably expect people to pay rent.”

Homeword has been steering people toward local resources in their home communities, including by calling 211, a phone line that provides referrals to health and social service resources. “I know a lot of the [guidance and resources] are changing every day,” Davis said.

Homeword is moving its financial literacy classes online, Davis said. She recommended people visit the organization’s Facebook page for the latest information.

“A lot of Americans don’t have safety nets, they don’t have big savings accounts. There’s a lot of trepidation, anxiety, and concern,” Davis said. “A lot of people are hurting in a lot of different ways.”

Shari Eslinger, housing director of the Human Resource Development Council in Bozeman, said HRDC has also been receiving calls from people looking for help. HRDC is already working to provide food assistance and is searching for funding to help with one-time rental assistance.

“What we can do changes by the hour,” Eslinger said. She recommended that residents open lines of communication with their landlords.

Patti Webster, executive director of the Housing Authority of Billings, which serves 1,800 area families, said the organization is facing uncertainty as residents lose their jobs. “Most of the people we serve are the working poor,” Webster said. Only 2 percent of people served by the authority receive welfare assistance, she said.

The authority has allowed families to report changes in income as they occur to help them become eligible as soon as possible for additional assistance through the federal housing choice voucher program, formerly known as Section 8. 

While this change benefits residents, it creates uncertainty for the housing authority, whose budget is determined by previous months’ expenditures. If more residents quickly receive more assistance, that would put the housing authority over budget, which generally means it would have to kick people off the program. Webster is seeking federal permission to expand her budget.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Wednesday that it will halt evictions for single-family homeowners with Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages for the next 60 days. But that policy does not apply to renters using federal subsidies, Webster said. “We don’t really have any directive other than what we’re doing,” Webster said. “We are open for business, serving families. Housing is a basic need.”

Webster said she is unaware of an increase in the number of people applying for assistance, but said the Housing Authority of Billings consistently has a waiting list of 7,000 to 9,000 people. “We just don’t have enough affordable housing units in our community,” Webster said.

Webster said that with school canceled through the end of the month, she’s also concerned about residents who now have to provide two more meals for their children each day, and those who continue to work, but now have to find childcare.

The authority is also contacting each of the residents of Pleasantview Apartments, its 102-unit complex for elderly residents, to make sure they have adequate food and medicine, Webster said, and providing assistance as necessary.

Homelessness issues

HRDC has closed its homeless shelters in both Bozeman and Livingston in response to the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in communal spaces. “We felt that was too risky to our clients,” Eslinger said. “We’re actively searching for other places where they can self-isolate.”

The Bozeman shelter typically serves about 50 people, while the Livingston Warming Center typically serves about five. Overall, HRDC is working with 120 households that are experiencing homelessness in Bozeman and Livingston, said HRDC Bozeman CEO and President Heather Grenier.

HRDC has attempted to place homeless people in hotels, but the hotels keep canceling the reservations, Eslinger said. Much of the homeless population is severely vulnerable to COVID-19, she said. Asked if hotels were specifically canceling reservations made by HRDC, Eslinger said that appears to be the case. 

“That is what seems to be happening. We make the reservation and they cancel,” she said. “One hotel expressed that they felt we were putting other guests at risk by putting people associated with HRDC there.”

For now, HRDC is supplying the homeless population with gear for outdoor living, she said.

Webster, who is also the chairwoman of the Billings Continuum of Care, a coalition of community social service organizations, said its two local homeless shelters, serving men and women respectively, are continuing to operate. However, the shelters are full, as is typical. Additionally, the shelters are limiting outside visitors, including those who typically eat at the shelter, as well as outside volunteers, because of concerns about the virus. The shelters do not have spaces where vulnerable people can self-isolate, Webster said.

Hoarding of groceries is also taking a toll on the Billings shelters. Normally, shelters receive leftover products from grocery stores, but those provisions have dried up. “People are buying everything. There is nothing for [grocery stores] to donate. Shelters are very low on supplies for perishable items,” Webster said.

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