Nebraska organizations debate over federal funds for rent, eviction relief

WOWT 6 News Live at 6:30
Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 4:55 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2022 at 6:28 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - For some of those on the front lines, trying to keep families in their homes, Friday’s testimony became emotional.

“I take applications, just because there’s a need, and every time you have to turn somebody, no they have kids in front of you, can’t do it,” said Karen Rathke, Heartland United Way Grand Island.

One after another, nonprofits, tenants, and landlords spoke in support of the amendment sponsored by State Sen. Matt Hansen. Sen. Hansen told the committee it will be a big mistake if Nebraska don’t apply for the additional help.

“That money has already been allocated and will simply go to other states if we fail to accept,” said Hansen.

Organizations from across the state are all telling the governor the need is still there and it’s getting worse. The hearing went on for about two hours, almost everyone speaking in favor of the amendment that would require the governor to apply for the funds.

“There are thousands of families right here in our state including here in Lincoln that struggle to pay rent along with other basic needs,” said Karen Bell-Dancy, YWCA of Lincoln.

There were tenants on the verge of eviction that came to the capitol hoping for help.

“I’m sorry, I just got a letter on my door saying I have 30 days to come up with my rent or I’m evicted,” said mother Megan McCaul.

In Douglas County, there are crowds waiting their turn in eviction court and the numbers are growing.

“Just to give you an example of the need in Douglas County eviction court this week there were 135 hearings scheduled, the most since March 2020, 121 of those were for nonpayment, said Erin Feichtinger, Together Omaha.

“Currently at Heartland Family Services we have over a thousand unanswered calls on our homeless prevention line and 500 unanswered calls on our homeless diversion line although dedicated staff work tirelessly helping everyone looking for some hope, we cannot fully meet the current level of need,” said Sara Meadows.

The governor says the number of applications indicates the need is not there, those who testified today say the system set up to apply is complicated and slow.

“The federal government has said that you no longer need any impact of COVID to qualify for funding that was specifically allocated to address the impacts of COVID. We should not be using taxpayer money to pay people’s rent without a good reason. It’s irresponsible spending like this that has ushered in record inflation and surging national debt, and in this case, Nebraska has elected not to take part.”

Gov. Ricketts

A budget administrator representing the governor is the only person to speak in opposition to the amendment.

“So that is two years of rental assistance we’ve been paying out for COVID ERAP two no longer needs government-related impact. Now you can structure it that way but the federal government is giving another $120 million to help for another assistance program to help for another three-year period, I mean, at some point the assistance has to end,” said Lee Will, State Budget Administrator.

He told the committee the process is through to help prevent fraud and the number of applications received doesn’t match today’s testimony.

“I talked to the localities and they indicted the data does not show that,” said Will.

“The amount of money Nebraska received from the federal government through ERAP is proving to be well over the amount the state needs to help renters impacted by COVID. We will continue to actively market and promote the $32 million in ERAP funding that remains available, but do not feel that further funding is appropriate.”

Lee Will, Budget Administrator

But those in support of the amendment say the number of people appearing in eviction court is evidence that the help is still needed.

“Senators, if we do not get the second round of ERAP, we in Sarpy County will not be able to prevent thousands of families from evictions and possibly homelessness,” said Tonya Gifford, Lift Up Sarpy County.

Officials say Nebraska and Arkansas are the only two states that haven’t applied for the second round of rental relief funds.

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