More than $100 million sitting unspent in program meant to help pay rent, utility bills

Thousands of households in the Lowcountry have faced losing their home since a moratorium on...
Thousands of households in the Lowcountry have faced losing their home since a moratorium on evictions lifted in May. The numbers continue to increase as the end of the year approaches.(Gray News)
Updated: Feb. 8, 2021 at 12:17 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – A program designed to quickly pay rent and utility bills for people financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has struggled to get money out the door.

The HOPE Grant program was announced by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper in October. By giving money to qualified applicants to pay rent, organizers hoped to help people struggling financially stay in this homes and also help landlords who depend on rental income.

On Thursday, Cooper and State Budget Director Charlie Perusse touted the program as a success in a press conference unveiling the governor’s budget proposal for this year.

“The HOPE Program that the Governor mentioned is a leader in the country. We were actually out in front of the federal government on this,” Perusse said of the program.

“The program received about $200 million in requests and we currently have gotten out about $125 million of that.”

But the program has spent less than half that amount, according to the agency administering the program.

The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency said last Tuesday that it had cut checks for just $42 million of the $160 million allocated for the HOPE program.

In an interview, a spokeswoman for NCORR could not provide a specific explanation for why only a quarter of the funds intended to help people strapped for cash during the pandemic have been spent.

“We look at it as $42.2 million that would have gone to landlords had not this program been founded,” NCORR spokeswoman Hailey Pfeiffer-Hayes said. “We’re going to continue to work to get all the money out the door. We know that help can never come quickly enough to those who are in need.”

Pfeiffer-Haynes said the process for awarding and distributing the HOPE grant funds – either to a landlord for rent or to a utility company for other bills – requires some lag time, including a five-day window for a recipient to opt-out of receiving the grant and time for a landlord to review the program requirements and agree to accept the funds.

But the processing time did not add up to a full explanation as to why the agency had awarded $120 million but only cut checks for $42 million.

WBTV has heard from nearly a dozen people who say they were approved for a HOPE Grant to pay their past-due rent but whose landlords won’t accept the money because of the requirements imposed by the state.

In other calls, landlords have contacted WBTV to say they are falling behind on their own bills because their renters can’t afford to pay rent.

Roy Abbott, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment off Sugar Creek Road in Charlotte with his young child and wife who is fighting cancer, is one tenant who was approved for a grant but whose landlord won’t take the money.

He was only behind one month on his rent, which means the additional funds would have paid for future months’ rent.

“Man, it was such a blessing, man. It’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t want to help you,” Abbott told WBTV in mid-January.

After his story first aired, Abbott had an opportunity to move into a new two-bedroom apartment near Park Road Shopping Center for just a little more in rent each month. The new apartment complex was willing to accept the HOPE Grant funds.

But state officials said the money couldn’t be used to pay for a new apartment for Abbott and his family because the money could only be used to pay for situations where a tenant was already behind on rent.

Now, instead of moving to a bigger apartment and using his grant money to cover his first months rent, Abbott is stuck in his current apartment and risks eviction when the moratorium is lifted.

“We’ll be homeless,” he said.

Pfeiffer-Haynes said her office has made some changes to the grant program intended to streamline disbursement of money and get more landlords to accept the cash.

“There was really no framework for that prior to the pandemic happening because it, you know, we are in unprecedented times,” she said. “But we quickly set up the program and we have moved as fast as we can.”

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