By Dylan Phillips
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Orange County’s Housing Helpline has been consistently receiving up to 1,000 calls for assistance a month. The Emergency Housing Assistance Program has been receiving about 300 applications a month.
That program is now scheduled to receive some reinforcement. Earlier this month, the Town of Carrboro announced it had been awarded $900,000 in Community Development Block Grant coronavirus funds from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the maximum amount given. Orange County also was awarded the maximum amount.
These funds, once received by both jurisdictions, will go towards the cooperative EHA program that covers each community within the county. Before the pandemic, each jurisdiction provided housing assistance on its own; the pandemic made local officials realize a joint effort would be more effective.
“Before the pandemic, Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough all had rental assistance programs but they were all a little different,” Carrboro Housing and Community Services Director Rebecca Buzzard said. “We had different eligibility criteria, different maximum amounts. Originally, Carrboro’s was really to help pay security deposits and, especially, for people with vouchers. But when the pandemic hit, all the local jurisdictions came together and collaborated to come up with this EHA program.”
To apply for rental and utility assistance, residents can call the hotline or apply online or by mail for the EHA program. Applying for EHA funds entails providing the county with one’s household income (through pay stubs or bank statements), place of residence and how much assistance is being requested. Individuals unable to provide the necessary documents can attest to this information.
“One of our goals is really to be as low-barrier as possible, both for landlords and the tenants, because we recognize that people need assistance right now, so we try to make things as barrier-free as possible,” said Emila Sutton, the county’s director of housing and community development.
Although the new funding hasn’t been dispersed to the jurisdictions yet, residents facing immediate eviction or utility disconnection will nevertheless receive aid, Sutton said.
“We can help people in emergency situations immediately,” she said. “We’re currently helping people through the limited local funds that we have left in EHA. We pay the water and utilities for people that are facing cutoffs.”
Because of a county memorandum banning evictions until the end of January, Sutton added that no renter will be in imminent danger before then. And she anticipates the new funding to provide assistance for residents becoming available by the end of January.
The funding is particularly important for Carrboro residents, said Town Council member Damon Seils.
“Carrboro is largely a renter community and most households in Carrboro are rental households,” Seils said. “Many of our lower and median-income residents live in rental housing.”
The EHA Program has assisted 247 households in Carrboro, with the HOPE Program —Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions — serving another 100 households, Buzzard said.
“That’s a lot of people compared to before the pandemic,” Buzzard said. “We would see an average of below 20 households come to us a year for rental assistance.”
The impact on Orange County, as a whole, has been just as strong. Sutton said the Town of Chapel Hill has received 44 percent of the EHA program funding; Carrboro has received 25 percent; the county’s unincorporated communities have received 23 percent and Hillsborough has received 8 percent of the funding.
There is an annual cap of $6,500 in assistance per household per year. Sutton said the annual cap is a guideline but “we really just to try do whatever we can to help people.” She added the vast majority of people seeking assistance don’t need anywhere close to that cap.
“With our history, and we’ve been doing this for quite some time — a lot longer than most other cities and states have been doing this — so we’ve learned a lot of solid lessons along the way,” Sutton said. “And one of those we’ve learned is that we have very few people that need more than $6,500 to remain stable. Most people, if you give them a one- or two-time infusion, that can get them through.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, local officials said they realized how important assistance for renters would be in the coming months, and the quick reaction has helped prevent evictions and service disconnections.
“Because the county already had this program in place, and because we were able to really quickly scale it up, we identified this the first day of the pandemic,” Sutton said. “We said, ‘We need to scale up, we have to get ready for all of this need,’ and we did that very quickly. We were able to keep our evictions numbers at about half of what they were pre-pandemic. Even before the moratorium occurred, we still had very low numbers compared to pre-pandemic.”
Seils also credited the county’s quick action with helping residents remain in their homes.
“Being able to contribute to housing stability in the community has been a primary motivator for the town council since the beginning of the pandemic,” Seils said. “We knew from the start that housing was going to be a serious challenge for many of our residents. So, being able to keep people in their housing, to keep the utilities on, has to be job number one for us right now, and this money is going to help us do that.”