Des Moines, Polk County help more households with emergency rent than state-run program

By: - July 22, 2021 8:00 am

President Biden is asking states and local governments to halt evictions for at least two months. A national moratorium on evictions ran out July 31. (Photo by iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The City of Des Moines and Polk County have assisted more households with emergency rental aid so far this year than a state-run program serving Iowa’s other 98 counties combined.

The city and county have received more than 3,500 applications for the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance program. According to data from the U.S. Department of Treasury, the City of Des Moines has received $6.4 million since January in round one of the funding. Polk County received $8.3 million. 

Des Moines assisted 1,871 households, while Polk County has assisted 788. 

The Iowa Finance Authority is overseeing the Iowa Rent and Utility Assistance Program for the other 98 counties in the state. The Treasury Department’s report said the state has received $195.1 million. Of that funding, $6.4 million was spent on paying rent, rental arrears, and utilities for residents between May and June 2021. 

Iowa Finance Authority Director Ashley Jared said the state’s program launched in March, two months after Des Moines’ and Polk County’s, and has received more than 8,100 applications. She said it was because they were taking more time to review guidance from the Treasury Department.

So far in 2021, the Iowa Finance Authority has assisted more than 1,400 households in the state. Iowa is the only Midwestern state to receive less than $200 million in total Emergency Rental Assistance allocation, award, and disbursement. 

Iowa isn’t alone in getting a slow start at distributing assistance. According to the Treasury report, a little more than $3 billion has reached renters so far out of the $46 billion approved by Congress.

The program was created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020 to help Americans who are unable to pay rent and utilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Polk County Housing Trust Fund Executive Director Eric Burmeister said Des Moines and Polk County opted to run their program separately instead of relying on the state because they felt that they “could better serve residents” on their own. 

The City of Des Moines and Polk County are working with IMPACT Community Action Partnership to apply for and delegate funding from the Emergency Rental Assistance program to residents. The city and county fully delegated the first round of funding it received and is currently allocating the second round, said Anne Bacon, IMPACT Community Action Partnership’s executive director.

Jared said the finance authority has yet to decide if it will apply to the second round of funding since it hasn’t given out all the money it received in the first round.

Burmeister said one of the difficulties of delegating funding for the state is the lack of workers — an issue that is not unique to Iowa. 

“If you take a look around the country, states are struggling with the lack of human infrastructure to get the money to the folks that need it,” he said. “Some places are having more trouble than others.”

After seeing some issues in the timeliness of reviewing applications, Jared said the state is making adjustments to get money in Iowans’ hands faster.

“We realized that we weren’t meeting turnaround times so we have hired an additional about 200 case managers that are reviewing applications,” she said. “We’ve also made significant updates to our application portal, the software system we use, that allows applications to be reviewed more quickly.”

The two programs are structured differently, Bacon said, which allowed Des Moines and Polk County to immediately allocate funding from when they received it in January.

“The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that we do a lot of our work with families directly,” she said. “When we started, we knew we would want to have an online application eventually, but we knew it would take too long to build it out. So our initial two months of operation were all done on the phone and through community partners.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.