Pierce County Offers a Model for Distributing Pandemic-Related Assistance Funding
As impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic became clearer to jurisdictions across the state, local governments pivoted to provide much needed services — from economic stimulus to rental assistance to free vaccine clinics.
On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law, providing more than $2 trillion in different types of COVID-19 crisis-related relief for all sectors of the economy. Jurisdictions with populations over 500,000 received a direct appropriation of relief funds while smaller jurisdictions received allocation of relief funds channeled through the Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce).
While the state’s moratorium on evictions (and subsequent extension) helped to ensure that people negatively impacted by the pandemic not lose their housing in the early months of the pandemic, many jurisdictions used these funds to develop assistance programs that would support households in arrears for rent or utility payments. This blog looks at the Pierce County county’s successful assistance program.
Pierce County Rental & Utility Assistance Program
This past September, King5 reported that more Pierce County residents were behind on their rent than anywhere else in the state, citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics that showed roughly 23,000 households in the county owed a combined $93 million in late rent payments, with the average household debt being $4,200.
In May 2020, Pierce County Human Services announced via blog that federal relief funds would be used for several priority areas, including rental assistance, and by August 2020, applicants could request up to three months rental assistance.
The story of the Rental & Utility Assistance Program is one in which a small staff, with support from partners, are able to build a successful program by making critical, incremental changes using raw data and public feedback, and striving for constant improvement.
In early 2020, program applicants applied online via Cognito, which offered the county little opportunity to customize the look or functionality of the portal. Materials created to promote the program were available in just a few languages, and they were not easily accessible to anyone who lacked a computer or internet connection. Further, the county tracked program services and expenditures in a simple Excel spreadsheet.
With just three people the program staff is small, but they developed robust partnerships with local jurisdictions, public housing authorities, landlords/housing providers, nonprofit services providers, and legal aid societies to help with critical program deliverables, including processing clients, issuing payments, and assisting with client outreach. As an added bonus, many partners already provided wrap-around services, such as substance abuse treatment or behavioral healthcare.
The program also partnered with several cities in the county to increase resources, funding, and outreach/marketing capabilities. For example, Pierce County, the City of Tacoma, and the county’s superior court jointly established the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, funded with $20 million from the U.S. Department of Treasury and $38 million from Commerce, to help tenants and landlords who needed dispute resolution support or additional services beyond rental assistance.
With additional federal dollars in 2021, the county was able to make key programmatic revisions. Applicants could now apply for up to 12 months of rental assistance as well as help with overdue utility bills, including electric, water, sewer, gas, garbage pickup, fuel oil, and internet services.
The original portal was replaced with a robust online application to streamline the process for providers, renters, and landlords. Landlords could preregister for tenants, which expedited the application process, and the program expanded to cover informal leases, such as when a person rents a room in a house owned by a relative or friend.
Working with United Way, the county developed a 211 call-in option for applicants without internet access and provided this service in over 200 languages. Additional funding also helped to cover the costs of translating program materials in several languages (as these flyers in English, Spanish, Korean, Tagalog and Russian demonstrate) and generally expanded the outreach effort to social media, radio ads, and videos, as well as a mailing campaign that sent postcards to every resident in county. The county developed helpful videos for people applying via the web portal.
The county also hosted in-person events — both to promote the program and sign up applicants — primarily at Pierce County Library branches or nonprofit partner offices, with separate events targeting landlords and others for tenants. The county’s Twitter feed lists almost three dozen such events spanning the months of September to December, 2021.
To be eligible for assistance, applicants must:
- Have experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19, either directly or indirectly (loss of job, reduction in hours, increased in expenses, etc);
- Be living/renting in the county with a formal or informal lease or rental agreement as proof (including anyone who has been living long-term at a hotel/motel and has documentation to show that payments have been made);
- Earn less than 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) for the county, which is $50,900 for a single earner and $72,650 for family of four, and;
- Be at least one day late on rent and/or utility payments.
Pierce County manages the application portal, performs a basic eligibility and duplication check, and then refers all clients to the program’s nonprofit partners. The county also manages program tracking, and reporting, which is completed through the portal and supported by the county’s IT and communications departments. Nonprofit providers review applications, collect missing documents from landlords and tenants, determine eligibility, process payments, and alert both parties (applicants and landlords and/or utilities) when a check is cut.
The county’s COVID-19 Relief Programs dashboard publishes updated numbers for assistance programs. To date, the rent and utility program has:
- Received 18,900 applications,
- Served 7,216 households,
- Paid out $69.8 million in rental assistance and $14,800 in utility payments to date, for an average payment of $9,679/household, and
- Made 13,900 referrals to providers
County staff have identified factors that have contributed to the program’s success including:
- Early outreach to and cooperation with landlords, which led to, among other things, allowing landlords to begin the application process.
- Open lines of communications with partners so that all parties feel ownership in the project’s success.
- Partnerships with service providers experienced in collaborating with marginalized communities and able to provide additional wrap-around services addressing systemic barriers that could help applicants beyond the provision of just rental or utility assistance. This includes communities of color, domestic violence survivors, immigrant communities, veterans, and households living with disabilities.
- A willingness to identify barriers to applicant success and fully remove these and not simply create a temporary work-around.
- Regular data monitoring and analysis that allows team members to identify program strengths and weaknesses and adjust processes as needed.
Program funding was over $60 million for the period of January – October 2021, including a mix of Commerce CARES (E-RAP) and Treasury (T-RAP) funds, U.S. Dept of Treasury funds, and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Future funding (October 2021 – September 2025) includes T-RAP, E-RAP, and ARPA support totaling over $73 million.
The small but mighty team at the Pierce County Rental & Utility Assistance Program has demonstrated that smart partnerships with trusted, long-standing human service agencies, a singular focus on improvement, and a willingness to change, when necessary, can deliver vital human services to communities in need.
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