Residents and onsite teams work together to obtain new government rental assistance.
As the country continues to reopen, many of the pandemic’s effects are still playing out. While much has changed during the past year and a half, one thing remains the same: The spirit of the rental housing industry and the assistance coming from housing providers to aid residents in need.
“One thing that has stood out to me the most during the pandemic is how people looked out for one another,” says Don Brunner, President/CEO for Cincinnati-based BRG Realty Group and NAA Board of Directors Chairman-Elect. “Our residents, team members and the local charitable organizations are examples of that giving and caring mindset—this is what helped keep our residents in their homes during these last 15 months.”
BRG Realty Group wasted no time setting up a plan and acting once the pandemic hit the U.S. Every month starting at the end of March 2020, BRG team members contacted residents to ensure they were OK. It is a way for BRG and residents to make a connection to establish if residents needed help with rent or needed food.
“This continued outreach led to increased resident retention and little to no delinquent balances for all those residents who communicated with staff. Every resident who asked for rental assistance received it,” says Brunner.
BRG has been able to direct residents to charitable organizations as well as consistent email communication during the pandemic. Other financial options were offered to residents—forbearance agreements, suspended late fees and waived credit cards fees to help with rental payment options.
At the onset of the pandemic, Kelle Senyé, Director of Asset Management with affordable housing developer Greater Albuquerque Housing Partnership (GAHP), knew they would need to plan with residents on different rental assistance options. “In April and May of last year, we covered the rents for our residents that had lost income,” she says. GAHP also only requested 30% of income for rent, but for most households, that meant paying $0 at first as rental assistance programs and stimulus checks began rolling out.
One of the biggest hurdles for Senyé is ensuring residents apply for assistance. New Mexico received $170 million in rental assistance funds, but only a fraction has been distributed—much of the funds will return to the federal government if not used. GAHP has been through multiple rounds of local assistance programs as well as other city-level assistance options. One of Albuquerque’s programs specifically targeted residents who didn’t qualify for unemployment or stimulus payments because of their immigration status. Senyé’s top priority is to get residents in the pipeline lined up for rental assistance before it disappears.
Residents having peace of mind is key during uncertain times. “With the efforts of our team members, local charities, expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, our residents were able to go to sleep knowing they were not carrying rental balances and would not lose their home,” says Brunner.
Now, more than halfway into 2021, residents and onsite teams are working together to obtain new government rental assistance, says Brunner. But these programs for rental assistance have not been so easily navigated. “To date, these programs have been slow to roll out, and communication with these agencies have been difficult. In my opinion, providing additional funding to the groups which were already assisting the residents would have been the easiest rollout.”
Timing is everything, and timeframes surrounding rental assistance have changed. “Our managers were accustomed to receiving rental assistance checks for their residents in a week or two, now we are seeing four to six weeks at best, and some states are two-plus months out—if they even respond,” Brunner says.
BRG is looking out for their residents to make sure they continue to have a roof over their head. “If the kinks in these federal programs can get worked out, residents who are continuing to be affected by job loss or underemployment can have several months of rent and utilities covered,” Brunner says.
Some of the issues for GAHP involved the speed of assistance and timing of the programs. While funds were approved in December 2020, Senyé says funds did not make their way to New Mexico until March 2021. “The delay in getting payment is frustrating, but as long as we know it’s coming, our residents and our team can feel that relief. The administering agencies are not always quick to update on a specific resident due to lack of staffing.”
Onsite and corporate teams continue working with residents during this challenging time, reaching out to those with larger past-due balances and trying to connect them with different resources that are available, says Kelly Greer, Director of Marketing with BH Companies. The company is sending emails with links to resources and various programs, while letting residents know they are appreciated. Onsite teams are helping residents apply for resources—no matter the issue, the teams, including the legal staff, are there to help residents search for assistance.
At Miami-based AHS Residential, teams made it a priority to reach out to those hit with financial hardships. “We offered rent deferrals for several months, and a lot of our residents tapped into that which was great,” says Ernesto Lopes, President and CEO of AHS Residential. “In addition, we created the AHS Resident Care team, which continues to provide one-on-one support and guidance to our residents on their rental assistance applications.”
As of May 2021, the AHS Resident Care team has assisted residents of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties with more than $341,000 in rental assistance. “For us, it was very important to give back and help out our communities during the pandemic in the best way possible,” Lopes says.
“Overall, based on [our efforts], our resident retention has been at or above the two previous years,” Brunner says. “It is our goal at BRG that every resident has the resources needed to secure a home.”
“Part of our mission is housing stability, and we believe strongly in that,” says Senyé. “We’re tired, we’re exhausted from it, but we’re going to keep trying to figure out how we keep our residents in their apartments. That’s the best outcome for everybody.”
Michael Miller is Managing Editor for NAA.