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Spotlight: A Conversation with Audra Hamernik, President and CEO of Nevada HAND

At the beginning of 2020, the leadership of Nevada HAND would have told you that the organization was thriving. As the largest affordable housing provider in Nevada, HAND had few vacancies in its nearly 5,000-unit portfolio and had several hundred more under construction. When the pandemic arrived in the state in late February, its leaders knew that staff would need to respond quickly and flexibly to keep that momentum going. However, given the unprecedented nature of the challenges the pandemic posed, it wasn’t immediately clear what the best path forward was on issues like unpaid rent or vaccine hesitancy among staff.

To quickly arrive at internal best practices on these issues, Nevada HAND did something unusual: they organized competitions between staff members to accomplish important goals, with the only rule being that winners had to share what they did to achieve them. Through these competitions, the organization was able to arrive at a playbook to respond to the pandemic far more quickly and organically than it would have otherwise been able to.

The National Housing Conference spoke with Nevada HAND President and CEO Audra Hamernik about how the organization fostered staff and resident team spirit to respond to challenges posed by the pandemic and lessons learned from their efforts.

What organizational changes did Nevada HAND make to foster friendly staff competition during the pandemic?

At the start of the pandemic, Nevada HAND was deemed an essential business by the State of Nevada. One of the first decisions Nevada HAND made was to allow employees to work from home if the function of their job allowed for it. For the site teams who were on the ground at each of our 34 properties, the theme was “shifting priorities.” Employees at the site levels are divided between resident services staff and property management staff. The pandemic provided the opportunity for us to make a change that we had long planned: to de-silo staff at each of our sites and re-organize them into site teams. This change allowed our organizational structure to reflect the fact that staff at each site worked far more with one another than they did with anyone outside the site. It also allowed us to better leverage the team spirit of staff at each site as the pandemic progressed, and we began to use competitions to respond to the challenges we encountered.

What did you focus on for the first competition between site teams Nevada HAND declared?

The first of these competitions were organized around rent collection. Before the pandemic, we never had a problem with widespread rent non-payments, and so staff was at a loss on how to respond when families in unit after unit informed us that they couldn’t pay rent during the first few months of the pandemic. We decided that the best way to find and promote internal best practices in response to this was to encourage innovation through competition, and so we incentivized site teams to get as close to full collection as possible. The only rule was that the teams that were doing the best had to share their strategies so that other teams could replicate their efforts at their sites.

Site teams were incredibly creative in response to this competition. Each team created a scoreboard to show how much rent they collected that month. These ranged from gumball machines staff would fill with candy as they collected more rent to maps of the Las Vegas Strip, with each casino representing a certain percentage of rent that had been collected. The site team at our Flamingo Pines apartment complex even created a racetrack for their scoreboard, with racecars with flamingo drivers representing the complex’s buildings and advancing along the track as more rent was collected from that building. Though the most important aspect of the competition was its effect on rent collections, this sort of creativity was crucial for team building at a time when employees were seeing very little of each other in person.

What were the results of the rent collection competition?

This competition helped us develop internal best practices for rent collection quite quickly without imposing late fees or initiating evictions against residents. Much of the work involved staff reaching out to residents to emphasize that they were willing to work with them if they were experiencing financial trouble and assisting them in applying for rental assistance if residents were interested. This sort of outreach resulted in helping residents secure over $600,000 in emergency rental assistance, which proved crucial to ensuring that residents could remain in our buildings through the pandemic. In senior buildings, resident services staff went so far as to go door-to-door to ensure residents that they were not going to be evicted and their relationship with the organization remained healthy and non-adversarial.

The strategies and tactics that we developed for our rent collection practices, included new rent repayment policies, updated communication resources such as compassionate talking points for staff when talking with residents, payment plans, promise-to-pay arrangements, and application assistance with rental assistance programs. We also waived late fees for all households from April 1 to April 30 of last year, saving our residents over $300,000 and demonstrating our solidarity with them during such a difficult period.

This competition also greatly increased our knowledge of residents’ conditions during the pandemic. We found, for example, that a major hindrance to rent collection in our senior living facilities was residents’ fear of leaving their units; many seniors were so terrified by the virus that they hadn’t gone outside of their apartments in weeks. That discovery also helped leadership realize that there were serious nutritional needs among residents and this led to the creation of a meal distribution program over the summer that delivered nearly 80 tons of food for two months to help feed more than 2,000 seniors at 18 affordable housing communities.

In addition to promoting the internal proliferation of best practices and helping increase our knowledge about residents, these competitions had the added benefit of boosting staff morale at a time when many employees were beginning to feel burnt out. Working during a pandemic is hard, not only logistically but emotionally, and it was extremely helpful for our employees to have a fun way to connect with each other while helping the organization and working with residents.

How else did Nevada HAND make use of competitions during the pandemic?

Given how effective the rent collection competition had been, we made use of the same concept when we confronted another challenge later on in the pandemic: getting staff who worked in our two senior living buildings vaccinated against COVID-19.

Though staff sometimes had to navigate a confusing web of power-of-attorney arrangements and preexisting conditions, it proved relatively easy to get upwards of 95% of senior living residents vaccinated. What we didn’t anticipate was the difficulty we would have getting staff to take on-site vaccine doses, which was a problem because our senior living facilities wouldn’t be able to fully reopen until staff vaccination coverage was at least 70%, based on guidance from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Resources. Staff hesitancy stemmed from the same concerns that many people across the country have, and it was clear that both education and encouragement would be necessary to increase staff vaccination rates.

Given this hesitancy, we decided to implement another competition to increase vaccine take-up, this one between the staff at the two senior living facilities. Management told staff that the first facility to get to over 70% staff vaccine coverage could have a celebration banquet with residents. Residents were informed of the competition, and we enlisted their help in encouraging staff to get vaccinated. In this case, the competition was intended less to arrive at internal best practices and more to harness the competitive spirit to achieve a goal.

What practices did Nevada HAND arrive at for increasing vaccine take-up?

Leadership at both senior living sites deployed a wide range of tactics to make hesitant staff more comfortable. Some staff wanted their questions answered by an unbiased person outside of the organization, and so we held conference calls in English and Spanish with medical professionals for staff to voice their concerns. Other staff sought increased support from within the organization, and residents and managers got involved in encouraging staff to get vaccinated and emphasized how reopening facilities would make life at work better. Some staff members even asked that our vice president of assisted living, who is a certified nurse, personally give them the vaccine. We also provided a monetary incentive to staff members in the form of a $100 gift card. This competition was just as successful as the first one, and though vaccine coverage among staff is not quite at levels that indicate herd immunity, it has increased dramatically since the competition’s inception.

What broader lessons from the competitions did Nevada HAND draw from to address problems posed by the pandemic?

Both competitions helped us find better strategies for disaster preparedness. Before the pandemic, we had plans in place to continue to serve residents in instances of disasters, from floods to fires and chemical spills to threats of violence. However, since we never needed to implement any of those plans, it was unclear whether they would be effective or not. The pandemic proved to be an opportunity for the organization to test many of the emergency preparedness measures it had established in the context of a competition and further incentivize staff to help develop optimal methods of response. This extra incentive helped us arrive at emergency preparedness practices that were not obvious before the pandemic, such as keeping shopping carts at each of its buildings to facilitate more efficient food and supply distribution.

The competitions had the effect of greatly increasing our estimation of its resident services staff. Since much of their work had to do with the so-called “soft” services of organizing community events and fostering relationships with residents, it was not always obvious how these team members helped fulfill the organization’s mission. However, when it became necessary to work with residents to get their rent paid or convince senior residents that they needed to get vaccinated, resident services staff members were some of the most effective team members for the simple reason that they were the ones with the deepest connections with residents. The pandemic was a good reminder that relationships are the most valuable resources for housing organizations.

Spotlight: A Conversation with Ann Houston, CEO of Opportunity Communities and Nancy Turner, Director of Resource Development at The Neighborhood Developers

When Nuestra Comunidad and The Neighborhood Developers (TND), two Boston-area community developers, came together to found Opportunity Communities (OppCo) in 2018, they never would have expected that the organization would spend its third year in existence responding to a global pandemic. But they might have predicted that OppCo’s success would be rooted in the mission they established at the nonprofit’s founding: elevating local knowledge and equipping leaders to serve the communities in which they are rooted.

OppCo was formed as a partnership between two Boston-area community developers that wanted to take advantage of the benefits of scale while keeping operational control and assets within the neighborhoods they served. Accordingly, OppCo’s efforts during the pandemic involved using its scale to empower local organizations to meet goals, from establishing hotlines to connect residents with services and performing wellness checks to using street art and music to foster community solidarity. OppCo’s efforts provide a roadmap for channeling resources to communities that need them most while empowering local voices and maintaining uplifting community institutions.

The National Housing Conference spoke with OppCo CEO Ann Houston and TND Director of Resource Development Nancy Turner about the ways that OppCo’s unique model gave its member organizations a step up in responding to the pandemic and how it has adapted existing initiatives during the current crisis.

OppCo isn’t a typical affordable housing provider. How does the OppCo model work?

The OppCo model allows local community development organizations to enjoy the benefits of scale while keeping control and assets within the communities they serve. OppCo’s members remain fully independent, with control over their own finances and programming, while taking advantage of OppCo’s administrative and affordable housing services. While member organization staff are legally employed by us at OppCo, they remain in member offices working under the direction of local leaders and under the respective member organizations’ name.  This helps retain talent by providing deeper career ladders and the ability to weather periods of fluctuating funding. This model lets member organizations avoid the pitfalls that often accompany scale – decreased community accountability, increased distance between community developers and local leaders – but still benefit from the advantages offered by a larger operation like OppCo’s.

Practically speaking, the model meant that we were uniquely positioned to support our members when the pandemic hit. The unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic required the creation of totally new programs, platforms and methods of outreach. At the start of the pandemic, many nonprofits found it challenging to balance serving communities in the moment while building out the sort of capacity that would be so important over the medium-term future. Nonprofits were facing financial pressures as the economic effects of the pandemic caused them to experience a decrease in funding resources at the same time that the communities they served were experiencing an increase in need. Our model allowed members to remain focused on the needs of their communities while we dealt with quickly building program capacities and administrative matters.

How did the pandemic affect OppCo’s properties and the communities it serves?

OppCo’s partners own residential properties in communities that while predominantly low- and  moderate-income, are full of community pride, grit and can-do spirit. These communities also tend to have some of the region’s most overcrowded housing, as high cost burdens force families to double- or even triple-up in one unit, or to rent unsafe spaces in unfinished basements or attics. Early on in the pandemic, it was neighborhoods like these where the virus was able to spread most easily, and which became the country’s first COVID-19 hotspots. Quite quickly, however, OppCo and its partners noticed that infection rates in our properties were significantly lower than those in surrounding communities.

In Chelsea, a small, majority Hispanic city directly north of Boston that is TND’s base of operations, 10% of residents live in units with more than one person per room, the highest share of any Massachusetts municipality. Early on in the pandemic, Chelsea also led the state in COVID-19 cases, due both to overcrowding and the high number of essential workers who were less able to work from home and to socially distance compared to members of wealthier communities. But TND properties experienced far fewer infections than one would expect by looking at the broader community. According to TND Executive Director Rafael Mares, “If our Chelsea tenants were falling ill at the same rate [as the city’s residents], we should have seen close to 100 cases within TND properties.” Six weeks into the pandemic, TND had seen only 14 cases, and infection rates in their buildings have remained three to four times lower than those of the surrounding community.

photo credit: The Neighborhood Developers

For OppCo and our partners, it is quite clear that the reason behind those numbers is the fact that safe, stable, affordable housing is one of the most important social determinants of health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those burdened by high housing costs have been far less able to practice social distancing, since that often means staying home from jobs as frontline workers in homes that are often uncomfortably crowded. But when people have access to housing that is affordable to them, they are far more able to make informed choices about when to stay home.

How did OppCo take initiative to stay connected to its communities and ensure their needs were being met after quarantine was declared?

Our mission to serve its communities does not stop at the doorstep of its residential properties. At the start of the pandemic, one of our top priorities was finding ways to help our members’ communities build resilience to the virus. Our flagship effort in this space was our work on the CONNECT Hotline, a combined traditional hotline-and-outreach tool. The hotline enabled community members to seek assistance applying for public benefits when face-to-face interaction was riskiest, while also remaining accessible to the many low-income residents who lack access to the sort of technology that would allow them to seek resources and information online.

TND decided early-on to be aggressive about establishing the hotline and worry about ironing out the kinks later. To staff the hotline, a team of more than 25 volunteers was recruited, a large number of whom were fluent in Spanish and Arabic, the two languages most commonly spoken by CONNECT callers other than English. Volunteers also worked with our data team to build out a secure online platform that enabled callers to use their phones to upload pictures of financial documents, which made it easier to assist callers in determining their eligibility for programs and apply for them.

In addition to connecting residents with federal and state resources, we made sure to stay informed of community-based resources in callers’ neighborhoods to which Hotline volunteers could refer callers when other resources proved insufficient. In Chelsea, for example, the city government and several civic organizations set up a citywide Eviction Taskforce, a roundtable of community advocates that would help prevent eviction and homelessness in real time. Volunteers regularly referred Chelsea callers to this taskforce, typically when other sources of aid would be too slow to meet the needs of the callers in question.

In one case, the hotline received a call from a Chelsea community member whose family was facing imminent eviction and whose past due rent would not be covered by state rent assistance. CONNECT referred his case to the local Eviction Taskforce, where representatives from the city government determined that his family was eligible for an available subsidized apartment unit. One nonprofit helped the family with the paperwork, and another provided emergency cash to cover relocation costs. If the family needs furniture, they can reach out to CONNECT again, which can provide financial support for this purpose.

What were the results of the CONNECT Hotline?

The results of TND’s initiative speak for themselves. As of February 2021, the hotline has leveraged over $3.4 million in public benefits for almost 2,000 households, and every dollar spent on the program leverages $10 in benefits for callers. The program has leveraged over $2.3 million in rent assistance alone, a number that represents almost 90% of the total amount of rent assistance funding distributed across Chelsea and Revere, a city adjacent to Chelsea of similar size and demographic makeup. At the end of 2020, the two cities ranked second and third among municipalities in Greater Boston in state rent assistance dollars distributed – coming in after only Boston itself, and beating out far larger cities like Cambridge and Quincy – demonstrating CONNECT’s strength in efficiently connecting residents with resources.

What logistical challenges did the CONNECT Hotline face?

One major challenge was simply the volume of calls CONNECT had to process. The need for assistance accessing services, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, was truly astronomical, and the hotline regularly approached 50 calls in a day, and sometimes had more than 100. TND and OppCo simply didn’t have the capacity in the beginning to work through them all, either with staff or with volunteers. That bottleneck, as well as the unfortunately high burden the state of Massachusetts placed on renters applying for assistance, meant that callers often had to leave messages describing their situations and wait to receive a call back. TND and OppCo were able to cut down on wait times by streamlining systems, recruiting more personnel, and by taking advantage of Massachusetts’ simplification of the application for rent assistance, which for several months was quite burdensome.

How did OppCo and TND provide for the emotional needs exposed by the hotline?

TND often found that many callers were so overwhelmed by their circumstances that it was difficult to give the practical assistance they were asking for. The pandemic had a very clear psychological impact, and it was not uncommon to find that TND’s volunteers’ work involved giving callers emotional support just as much as help finding resources.

Another challenge was the emotional toll that working the hotline took on OppCo’s volunteers. Volunteers spent their shifts hearing from many distressed people in desperate circumstances, and it was often hard for them to acknowledge that the work they were doing was challenging – all the more so because they were acutely aware that the burden they bore was nothing compared to that of the callers they were hearing from. To address this need, OppCo organized listening sessions several times for volunteers to affirm that their work was emotionally taxing.

How did OppCo support its partner organizations in their efforts to stay connected to their communities?

In addition to the CONNECT Hotline, we contributed to another phone-based project, this one to perform wellness checks on residents in OppCo-supported residential properties. We wanted to find ways to connect residents with groceries and services they were eligible for as quickly as possible. However, given that the tenant population is especially affected by the digital divide – 20% of households lack internet service – we made a similar calculation to the one that led TND to set up a phone hotline to connect community members with services, and decided that the best way to reach residents was to call them.

Our goal was to reach out to each households directly to check in and provide updates on health and safety policies and food distribution. We started out by calling each of our households on a biweekly basis, but quickly realized that we lacked the staffing capacity to maintain that level of outreach. With the help of our data team, we quickly pivoted to making automated calls to residents with health, safety and service information. We continued making in-person calls to senior residents, however, given their increased vulnerability to the health, economic and social effects of the pandemic.

How did OppCo foster community in the neighborhoods it serves during the pandemic?

During the early portions of the pandemic, we and our partners were primarily concerned with ensuring that the material needs of our residents and communities were being met. However, as we got better at meeting those most basic needs, we realized that the realities of life during a pandemic – undoubtedly one of the most collectively isolating periods in recent history – were taking a social toll as well. This realization led us to broaden our focus from programs like CONNECT to those that facilitated intra-community solidarity.

One example of this sort of solidarity work took place in partnership with OppCo member Nuestra Comunidad, a community developer in several of Boston’s historically Black neighborhoods. Nuestra Comunidad recognized that the impact of the pandemic combined with the traumas that lead to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer generated a unique need in their communities for projects that celebrated Black life and culture. In that spirit, they held a series of public, socially-distanced events using art to build and maintain community. Events included jazz concerts, drive-in movie nights, and the unveiling of a mural celebrating social justice at a Nuestra construction site at Bartlett Station near Nubian Square, which is in the heart of Boston’s Black community. Over 8,000 people attended the arts series events, including 5,000 in person and 3,000 online. The series generated $58,000 in commission and other revenue opportunities to artists and vendors. 

photo credit: Robin Lubbock of WBUR

Nuestra received two kinds of feedback on the 2020 arts series.  The participating vendors and artists reported approval and interest from customers and attendees in coming back for more events.  Second, a community advisory committee enthusiastically recommended holding a 2021 arts series to build on the success of 2020. They recommended Nuestra incorporate a steel container arts studio in development by a local artist, Radiant Jasmin. Nuestra adopted this recommendation and is planning a 2021 arts program focused on mural installations, music performance, a food/beer garden venue, and the steel container studio.

What has OppCo done to promote racial equity during the pandemic?

The racial skew of the COVID-19 pandemic is by now common knowledge, but it is important not to forget that it is just one more item on a long list of disasters that have disproportionately affected people of color, and that in no cases was this racial skew accidental. Time and time again, the needs of communities of color have been ignored, which has left members of these communities disproportionately vulnerable to the harms of pandemics, natural disasters, economic downturns, and myriad other catastrophes whose burdens fall along racial lines. This is especially the case in the Boston area. In 2015, the Boston Federal Reserve found that while White households in Greater Boston have a net worth of $247,500 on average, the typical Black household had a net worth of just $8. The study links the difference to intergenerational wealth transfers, largely based on homeownership. The same study found wealth disparities between White and Hispanic households that were nearly as large.

We at OppCo recognizes that the history of racial discrimination in the United States is so pernicious that racially-specific remedies are appropriate to correct for historical and present-day harms inflicted on people of color. This recognition, combined with the fact that homeownership is the most important method for household wealth creation in the United States was the inspiration for the Homes for Equity program, which aims to develop a sustainable program that is focused on households of color harmed by systemic housing discrimination, designed to build wealth through homeownership and reduce the racial homeownership gap. The program was conceived as a collaboration between OppCo and the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, which aims to create a scalable model for homeownership and wealth creation for households of color. A crucial aspect of the project is the documentation of the history of housing discrimination in Boston – the history that made the remedy necessary in the first place – for the purpose of building widespread public support for redress via homeownership. The project is currently in its pilot phase, for which we will leverage 40 homes in development through its partnership with Nuestra Comunidad.

What lessons has OppCo drawn from your experience during the pandemic?

One lesson has simply been that healthy, stable and affordable housing is its own sort of vaccine against the risks posed by public health crises. Residents in the properties we service remained healthier and more economically secure than their neighbors in market-rate housing. For us and our partners, those results only reaffirm the importance of dedicated affordable housing to keep communities safe and vibrant.

Another lesson is that building a sense of community identity and connections can play an important role in community and family resilience. While building community connections requires time and attention, the investment pays off during crises. Our administrative and technical supports allowed TND and Nuestra Comunidad to focus on community well-being, confident that their organizational needs were well-managed. Nuestra’s cultural work provided a voice within a community at the heart of Boston’s racial reckoning.  TND’s virtual community gatherings linked community residents and civic leaders in one of the nation’s hardest-hit communities.

The confluence of events and issues that dominated our country in 2020 called for both immediate response and a longer-term look at more systemic solutions. The marrying of locally controlled, community-based insight with more scaled supports has provided OppCo and our members with essential tools. For example, due to its partnership with OppCo, TND was able to quickly identify emerging needs for access to public benefits in Chelsea and Revere and respond with the CONNECT hotline, leveraging resources and support available. The partnership has similarly facilitated the Homes for Equity pilot that utilizes under-recognized duty in the Fair Housing Act to remediate the harms of housing discrimination to meet a local goal of wealth building for Black households. Organizations with OppCo’s scale typically work at the metropolitan or state level and are vulnerable to missing the granular local knowledge essential to meeting the emerging needs of residents. Organizations at the local scale of TND and Nuestra, meanwhile, are not usually able to leverage the sorts of administrative resources required to manage the work. The joint-venture model allowed each of OppCo’s entities to play to their strengths while relying on their partners for those areas where they would have otherwise fallen short. 

Spotlight: A Conversation with Margaret Salazar, Executive Director of Oregon Housing And Community Services

When Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) published its first ever Statewide Housing Plan in 2019, the housing finance agency (HFA) could not have imagined the challenging landscape it would be navigating in 2020 or the new level of urgency the plan’s priorities – affordable rental housing, racial justice, homelessness, homeownership, permanent supportive housing and rural communities – would take on in the midst of a global pandemic.

OHCS is responsible for providing financial and operational support across the state to create and preserve opportunities for quality, affordable housing. OHCS administers a wide range of programs, partnering with state government agencies and local organizations, and engages leaders to develop integrated statewide policy that addresses poverty and creates opportunity for Oregonians. A “one stop shop” for Oregon housing, OHCS is tasked with stewardship, compliance monitoring, and asset management as it oversees funds from both federal and state resources.

The National Housing Conference spoke to OHCS Executive Director Margaret Salazar to discuss how this agile HFA, with an exceptionally broad mandate, was able to react and respond to a dramatic spike in housing-related need in the wake of COVID-19. Salazar explained how the challenges the organization faced in recent months have deepened OHCS’s commitment to sustainable housing and shined a bright light on the need for culturally responsive partners that deliver a positive and equitable impact in Oregonians’ lives.

OHCS worked closely with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and laid the groundwork for the state legislature’s support of sustainable housing through advocacy.

Has COVID-19 impacted the priorities established in the Statewide Housing Plan?

OHCS’s five-year Statewide Housing Plan was the result of two years of planning and listening tours across Oregon’s diverse communities – both large and small – including coastal villages, urban centers, “wheat country” and Portland’s suburbs. The plan lays out how we will create more stable housing opportunities and highlights important priorities, including advancing equity and racial justice, ending homelessness, investing in permanent supportive housing, reducing the cost burden for low-income renters, helping more households achieve and maintain homeownership, and responding to the unique housing needs of rural communities.

Each and every one of these priorities took on new meaning in 2020. From the challenge of avoiding homelessness and providing safe congregate housing during a pandemic to ensuring newly appropriated emergency funds were distributed quickly and equitably, OHCS’s commitment to the statewide housing plan was put to the test. The past couple of months have certainly illuminated areas for improvement, such as finding better solutions for agricultural workers who require emergency housing close to their place of employment in sparsely populated rural areas. However, just as important, COVID-19 has underscored how critical these priorities really are to keeping Oregonian families and individuals safe and secure – regardless of what’s happening in the world.

How does the COVID-19 Has COVID-19 changed OHCS’s relationships with its partners?

We partner with many state government agencies and service providers across our programs for affordable rental housing development, asset building, asset management, energy and weatherization, homeownership, housing stabilization, homelessness prevention and manufactured homes. COVID-19 served to deepen existing relationships with partners in the state government, while also fostering stronger relationships with a diverse group of organizations.

As a part of our COVID-19 outreach and response, we collaborated with dozens of organizations, ranging from the state’s largest farm worker union to the Oregon Health Authority, to ensure the most comprehensive and coordinated supportive service delivery possible. The pandemic also served as a reminder of the value of good relationships with the state legislature and governor’s office. In developing the Statewide Housing Plan, we at OHCS worked closely with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and laid the groundwork for the state legislature’s support of sustainable housing through advocacy. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, these relationships made it possible for OHCS to easily communicate needs on the ground and obtain the necessary funding.

How did OHCS maintain communication with stakeholders during the pandemic?

Effective communication was key to OHCS’s response to the pandemic. At the onset of COVID-19, we instituted a weekly communication call via Zoom, where program leaders were able to provide the latest updates, disseminate information and answer questions. Managing the deluge of government actions, such as executive orders, challenged the organization’s ability to keep the website up-to-date, but we prioritized providing as much information as possible to our partners.

With our employees working remotely, we worked just as hard to maintain communications with our internal team. Recognizing that many employees are already disconnected from the people they serve – because we act primarily as a program intermediary and facilitator – we had to reflect on how to keep employees engaged and connected in our mission. 

How has OHCS managed the distribution of COVID-19 funding?

We were fortunate to receive significant funding from both the CARES Act and the state, with more than $200 million in housing stabilization and homeless services resources. This includes $26 million in project-based assistance to pay off arrears in our regulated affordable housing portfolio, $3.5 million to provide non-congregate, safe sheltering for Oregon’s agricultural workers and $56.2 million in CARES Act Emergency Solutions Grant funding.

Knowing that homeowners, renters and households across the state were in dire need of immediate financial and housing support, we tried to carefully balance the need for rapid distribution of aid and the importance of equitable administration of that aid. We have worked to educate policymakers on the time it takes to assess the capability of partners on the ground and the access to support they provide across different communities. While remote work has made such assessments even more challenging, we are requiring our partners to collect data disaggregated by race and ethnicity in order to monitor the impact of program spending.

How has OHCS been impacted by ongoing demonstrations in Portland?

Portland has been an epicenter for demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, seeing more than 100 days of protests. Even before the widespread unrest seen across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death, OHCS recognized that racial justice was a priority in need of greater attention.

The Statewide Housing Plan rightly acknowledges that “ongoing discrimination in the housing market combined with systemic barriers to economic mobility, wealth creation and opportunities impede progress toward parity.” In response to this call to action, we committed to adopting an intentional, data-driven approach with our partners to reduce disparities in housing and social services. And although this commitment has proven more challenging in a rapid funding and remote work environment, we have continued to layer a racial equity perspective onto our program administration.

When we had to submit our 2021 budget request, for example, we conducted a racial justice assessment for its proposals. For current outcome-oriented contracts, we have asked partners to demonstrate how they are culturally responsive and working to serve all demographics equally. Understanding that it will take time for all partners to demonstrate such an impact, we have laid out a three-year plan to work with our partners at the end of which organizations will have to show they are culturally responsive to receive future funding.

How is OHCS serving rural communities?

Oregon is an incredibly diverse state in terms of ethnicity, occupation, geography and community type, and during our COVID-19 response, we have paid close attention to the unique challenges facing even the state’s smallest communities. The needs of the state’s agriculture workers living in rural areas were quickly communicated to us through one of our partner organizations early in the pandemic as rent collections declined by 40%.

We immediately stepped in to support emergency housing needs in the agricultural community. We partnered with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to determine the best way to provide non-congregate housing close to places of employment. Drawing on new guidance from Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, we developed a way to maintain social distancing through bunk-style housing. We also partnered with other state agencies to extend hotel vouchers for agricultural workers and in some cases install trailers on farm properties.

How has COVID-19 changed OHCS as an organization?

Like many housing organizations, COVID-19 has reaffirmed our understanding of the critical importance of stable, secure and sustainable housing for all households. As the pandemic laid bare gaps in services, funding and planning across the country, OHCS finds itself a changed agency, more committed than ever to overcoming big challenges to deliver meaningful progress in the areas of racial equity, homelessness and affordable housing.

As we look to 2021 and consider what a post-pandemic landscape will bring, we recognize that going back to the way things used to operate is not an option. Our experiences during COVID-19 reveal just how essential it is to make individual needs central to the delivery of all social services, from workforce benefits to health and housing. As we move forward, we plan to develop even stronger interagency partnerships at the federal and state level to build a social safety net that truly meets Oregonians wherever they are at.

Spotlight: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership – Emergency Rental Assistance Program

As COVID-19 cases increase and unemployment rates rise, renters across the country are particularly vulnerable. Of the 110 million renters living in the U.S., an estimated 19-23 million are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, 2020. In response to this crisis, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership (the Housing Partnership) acted quickly to set up an Emergency Rental Assistance Program for the City of Charlotte (ERAP-CLT) to assist clients experiencing hardship due to COVID-19. The Housing Partnership is one of North Carolina’s leading affordable housing organizations, serving low- and moderate-income households and communities through real estate development, homeownership education, financing and neighborhood revitalization.  

Since early April, ERAP-CLT has served more than 2,000 applicants. In an effort to expand the reach of the program and help as many individuals as possible, the Housing Partnership has leveraged its network of partner organizations to address a broad range of tenant needs that might not otherwise be covered by a typical rental assistance program. As a result, ERAP-CLT has grown into a program that assists clients with utilities and hotel bills, as well as legal and job counseling. Importantly, ERAP-CLT’s flexible and adaptive program design has also opened the program to cost-burdened households above 80% of the area median income (AMI). ERAP-CLT has not only reduced the pipeline of eviction filings, but has provided much-needed support to those living in Charlotte’s missing middle housing.

The National Housing Conference connected with Erin Barbee, senior vice president of programs and fund development, to find out how the Housing Partnership was able to put together a rental assistance program so quickly and how the program has evolved over the past few months. This conversation was edited for brevity. 

What is ERAP-CLT and who does it serve?  

We began the program with funding from the United Way and later expanded through partnerships with the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, utilizing community development block grants (CDBG) and CARES Act funding. We have also received funding from Truist, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. These diverse sources of funding have allowed us to create a comprehensive program that addresses a broad range of challenges brought on by the pandemic.    

We have processed more than 2,000 applications from individuals and families facing COVID-19 related financial hardship. The program was initially intended to help tenants living in income-restricted rental units serving those at 80% AMI and below. However, as the program evolved, we saw that there was a need for residents who were in the 80-120% AMI range. The county and CARES Act funding we received allowed us to serve cost-burdened tenants in market rate properties and tenants at 120% AMI and below.

In order to receive assistance, a tenant must fill out an application and have experienced at least one of the following types of hardship as a result of COVID-19: job loss, wage reduction, illness, or childcare challenges.

The tenant must also be living in an eligible property. In order for a property to be eligible, property managers must fill out an application and agree to certain terms and conditions. This includes providing their rent rolls every month so that our organization can double check the information against what the tenant has provided. We also require the managers to agree to certain conditions—a small rent concession, not charging late fees, and importantly, not moving forward with eviction.  

These conditions ensure tenants are not negatively impacted by arrears or late fees. We also wanted to leverage this program to help reduce the pipeline for eviction filing. The City of Charlotte now has a mediation process. So those who take part in this program must agree to participate in a mediation process instead of going through the court system.

As the program has evolved, we have expanded the qualifying criteria for properties in order to help as many people as possible. We initially served three properties at 80% AMI and below with the help of private funding. When the city of Charlotte came forward with the CDBG emergency funds, we started to work with properties that had City of Charlotte investments, which brought us up to about 101 properties. Mecklenburg County also approved funding for 120% AMI and below. Now we have funds from the CARES Act and we’re able to open up the program to larger multifamily properties, or single-family homes with three or four renters.

Can you walk us through the application process and how you and your team interact with the impacted tenant?  

Tenants typically find out about our program when they receive a flyer along with a late notice. To apply for assistance, they need to complete an ERAP-CLT registration form and upload supporting documentation. When we started the program, we had three properties and we received 300 applications in our first few weeks. So, we created an online application using Smart Sheets to streamline and automate the process and allow people to fill out the form on their phone or computer. The application contains demographic and eligibility information as well as authorizations, releases and additional verification items.  

For clients who have challenges with technology, we have a dedicated phone line so they can connect to a counselor who will complete the application over the phone with them. To overcome the technology barrier, we also had some staff meet clients outdoors and assist them with paperwork while practicing social distance.

After the application is submitted, we check the documentation and ensure the tenant lives in an eligible property, then we assign the tenant to a counselor via email. The counselor will reach out to the tenant within 24 hours and set up a budget session. After that, the counselor qualifies the tenant based on the documentation and specific COVID-19 related need. As long as tenants can show month-over-month that they have a COVID-19 related hardship, they are eligible for the funds. Our goal is to process applications and approve clients for payment within 72 hours. After the counselor approves the application, the information is sent to our fiscal agent, Social Serve. In turn, they issue funds to the tenant’s property manager within 24 to 48 hours. Tenants need to reapply each month; as long as they remain eligible, tenants may reapply for as many months as they are in need.  

It’s important to note that ERAP-CLT does not issue funding directly to the tenant. Funds are distributed to the property manager and does not cover past due arrears. In turn, the property manager is contractually obligated to credit each customer’s rental obligation. 

How have you handled staffing for the ERAP-CLT program?  

When we started the program, with no additional staffing, it was difficult to manage the volume of applications. To increase our capacity, we had to work around the clock and pull staff from other projects. As we have secured additional funding, we have been able to scale up using temporary employees. In order to determine how many staff we needed, we came up with a formula. In the first month, we received 300+ applications and we had eight people dedicated to the program. For every 80 applications, we need another counselor. Counseling sessions with each applicant take 30 to 45 minutes. Now we are receiving between 800 and 1,000 applications per month. Scaling up in this manner allowed us to avoid having an application backlog and waitlist. 

How have your partnerships with other organizations evolved as the program has expanded?

Our clients have complex needs and often face more than one challenge. Knowing that the majority of applicants have suffered job loss, we started to work with Charlotte Works, our workforce development partner, to help tenants access opportunities. Applicants can opt-in to the workforce development part of our program and work with Charlotte Works to receive either job opportunities or training and education opportunities. 

Our partnership with Legal Aid seeks to assist tenants with housing-related legal issues. Legal Aid provides counseling on tenant rights and rent disputes. Through our direct referrals to Legal Aid we seek to prevent evictions and provide tenants with information about their legal rights. 

The ability to pay utility bills has also become a challenge many of our clients are facing, so we have partnered with the county to provide funding to support those in need of utility assistance.  

As COVID-19 cases increase and unemployment rates rise, renters across the country are particularly vulnerable. Of the 110 million renters living in the U.S., an estimated 19-23 million are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, 2020. In response to this crisis, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership (the Housing Partnership) acted quickly to set up an Emergency Rental Assistance Program for the City of Charlotte (ERAP-CLT) to assist clients experiencing hardship due to COVID-19. The Housing Partnership is one of North Carolina’s leading affordable housing organizations, serving low- and moderate-income households and communities through real estate development, homeownership education, financing and neighborhood revitalization.  

Since early April, ERAP-CLT has served more than 2,000 applicants. In an effort to expand the reach of the program and help as many individuals as possible, the Housing Partnership has leveraged its network of partner organizations to address a broad range of tenant needs that might not otherwise be covered by a typical rental assistance program. As a result, ERAP-CLT has grown into a program that assists clients with utilities and hotel bills, as well as legal and job counseling. Importantly, ERAP-CLT’s flexible and adaptive program design has also opened the program to cost-burdened households above 80% of the area median income (AMI). ERAP-CLT has not only reduced the pipeline of eviction filings, but has provided much-needed support to those living in the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.   

The National Housing Conference connected with Erin Barbee, senior vice president of programs and fund development, to find out how the Housing Partnership was able to put together a rental assistance program so quickly and how the program has evolved over the past few months. This conversation was edited for brevity. 

What is ERAP-CLT and who does it serve?  

We began the program with funding from the United Way and later expanded through partnerships with the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, utilizing community development block grants (CDBG) and CARES Act funding. We have also received funding from Truist, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. These diverse sources of funding have allowed us to create a comprehensive program that addresses a broad range of challenges brought on by the pandemic.    

We have processed more than 2,000 applications from individuals and families facing COVID-19 related financial hardship. The program was initially intended to help tenants living in income-restricted rental units serving those at 80% AMI and below. However, as the program evolved, we saw that there was a need for residents who were in the 80-120% AMI range. The county and CARES Act funding we received allowed us to serve cost-burdened tenants in market rate properties and tenants at 120% AMI and below.

In order to receive assistance, a tenant must fill out an application and have experienced at least one of the following types of hardship as a result of COVID-19: job loss, wage reduction, illness, or childcare challenges.

The tenant must also be living in an eligible property. In order for a property to be eligible, property managers must fill out an application and agree to certain terms and conditions. This includes providing their rent rolls every month so that our organization can double check the information against what the tenant has provided. We also require the managers to agree to certain conditions—a small rent concession, not charging late fees, and importantly, not moving forward with eviction.  

These conditions ensure tenants are not negatively impacted by arrears or late fees. We also wanted to leverage this program to help reduce the pipeline for eviction filing. The City of Charlotte now has a mediation process. So those who take part in this program must agree to participate in a mediation process instead of going through the court system.

As the program has evolved, we have expanded the qualifying criteria for properties in order to help as many people as possible. We initially served three properties at 80% AMI and below with the help of private funding. When the city of Charlotte came forward with the CDBG emergency funds, we started to work with properties that had City of Charlotte investments, which brought us up to about 101 properties. Mecklenburg County also approved funding for 120% AMI and below. Now we have funds from the CARES Act and we’re able to open up the program to larger multifamily properties, or single-family homes with three or four renters.

Can you walk us through the application process and how you and your team interact with the impacted tenant?  

Tenants typically find out about our program when they receive a flyer along with a late notice. To apply for assistance, they need to complete an ERAP-CLT registration form and upload supporting documentation. When we started the program, we had three properties and we received 300 applications in our first few weeks. So, we created an online application using Smart Sheets to streamline and automate the process and allow people to fill out the form on their phone or computer. The application contains demographic and eligibility information as well as authorizations, releases and additional verification items.  

For clients who have challenges with technology, we have a dedicated phone line so they can connect to a counselor who will complete the application over the phone with them. To overcome the technology barrier, we also had some staff meet clients outdoors and assist them with paperwork while practicing social distance.

After the application is submitted, we check the documentation and ensure the tenant lives in an eligible property, then we assign the tenant to a counselor via email. The counselor will reach out to the tenant within 24 hours and set up a budget session. After that, the counselor qualifies the tenant based on the documentation and specific COVID-19 related need. As long as tenants can show month-over-month that they have a COVID-19 related hardship, they are eligible for the funds. Our goal is to process applications and approve clients for payment within 72 hours. After the counselor approves the application, the information is sent to our fiscal agent, Social Serve. In turn, they issue funds to the tenant’s property manager within 24 to 48 hours. Tenants need to reapply each month; as long as they remain eligible, tenants may reapply for as many months as they are in need.  

It’s important to note that ERAP-CLT does not issue funding directly to the tenant. Funds are distributed to the property manager and does not cover past due arrears. In turn, the property manager is contractually obligated to credit each customer’s rental obligation. 

How have you handled staffing for the ERAP-CLT program?  

When we started the program, with no additional staffing, it was difficult to manage the volume of applications. To increase our capacity, we had to work around the clock and pull staff from other projects. As we have secured additional funding, we have been able to scale up using temporary employees. In order to determine how many staff we needed, we came up with a formula. In the first month, we received 300+ applications and we had eight people dedicated to the program. For every 80 applications, we need another counselor. Counseling sessions with each applicant take 30 to 45 minutes. Now we are receiving between 800 and 1,000 applications per month. Scaling up in this manner allowed us to avoid having an application backlog and waitlist. 

How have your partnerships with other organizations evolved as the program has expanded?

Our clients have complex needs and often face more than one challenge. Knowing that the majority of applicants have suffered job loss, we started to work with Charlotte Works, our workforce development partner, to help tenants access opportunities. Applicants can opt-in to the workforce development part of our program and work with Charlotte Works to receive either job opportunities or training and education opportunities. 

Our partnership with Legal Aid seeks to assist tenants with housing-related legal issues. Legal Aid provides counseling on tenant rights and rent disputes. Through our direct referrals to Legal Aid we seek to prevent evictions and provide tenants with information about their legal rights. 

The ability to pay utility bills has also become a challenge many of our clients are facing, so we have partnered with the county to provide funding to support those in need of utility assistance.  

As COVID-19 cases increase and unemployment rates rise, renters across the country are particularly vulnerable. Of the 110 million renters living in the U.S., an estimated 19-23 million are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, 2020. In response to this crisis, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership (the Housing Partnership) acted quickly to set up an Emergency Rental Assistance Program for the City of Charlotte (ERAP-CLT) to assist clients experiencing hardship due to COVID-19. The Housing Partnership is one of North Carolina’s leading affordable housing organizations, serving low- and moderate-income households and communities through real estate development, homeownership education, financing and neighborhood revitalization.  

Since early April, ERAP-CLT has served more than 2,000 applicants. In an effort to expand the reach of the program and help as many individuals as possible, the Housing Partnership has leveraged its network of partner organizations to address a broad range of tenant needs that might not otherwise be covered by a typical rental assistance program. As a result, ERAP-CLT has grown into a program that assists clients with utilities and hotel bills, as well as legal and job counseling. Importantly, ERAP-CLT’s flexible and adaptive program design has also opened the program to cost-burdened households above 80% of the area median income (AMI). ERAP-CLT has not only reduced the pipeline of eviction filings, but has provided much-needed support to those living in the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.   

The National Housing Conference connected with Erin Barbee, senior vice president of programs and fund development, to find out how the Housing Partnership was able to put together a rental assistance program so quickly and how the program has evolved over the past few months. This conversation was edited for brevity. 

What is ERAP-CLT and who does it serve?  

We began the program with funding from the United Way and later expanded through partnerships with the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, utilizing community development block grants (CDBG) and CARES Act funding. We have also received funding from Truist, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. These diverse sources of funding have allowed us to create a comprehensive program that addresses a broad range of challenges brought on by the pandemic.    

We have processed more than 2,000 applications from individuals and families facing COVID-19 related financial hardship. The program was initially intended to help tenants living in income-restricted rental units serving those at 80% AMI and below. However, as the program evolved, we saw that there was a need for residents who were in the 80-120% AMI range. The county and CARES Act funding we received allowed us to serve cost-burdened tenants in market rate properties and tenants at 120% AMI and below.

In order to receive assistance, a tenant must fill out an application and have experienced at least one of the following types of hardship as a result of COVID-19: job loss, wage reduction, illness, or childcare challenges.

The tenant must also be living in an eligible property. In order for a property to be eligible, property managers must fill out an application and agree to certain terms and conditions. This includes providing their rent rolls every month so that our organization can double check the information against what the tenant has provided. We also require the managers to agree to certain conditions—a small rent concession, not charging late fees, and importantly, not moving forward with eviction.  

These conditions ensure tenants are not negatively impacted by arrears or late fees. We also wanted to leverage this program to help reduce the pipeline for eviction filing. The City of Charlotte now has a mediation process. So those who take part in this program must agree to participate in a mediation process instead of going through the court system.

As the program has evolved, we have expanded the qualifying criteria for properties in order to help as many people as possible. We initially served three properties at 80% AMI and below with the help of private funding. When the city of Charlotte came forward with the CDBG emergency funds, we started to work with properties that had City of Charlotte investments, which brought us up to about 101 properties. Mecklenburg County also approved funding for 120% AMI and below. Now we have funds from the CARES Act and we’re able to open up the program to larger multifamily properties, or single-family homes with three or four renters.

Can you walk us through the application process and how you and your team interact with the impacted tenant?  

Tenants typically find out about our program when they receive a flyer along with a late notice. To apply for assistance, they need to complete an ERAP-CLT registration form and upload supporting documentation. When we started the program, we had three properties and we received 300 applications in our first few weeks. So, we created an online application using Smart Sheets to streamline and automate the process and allow people to fill out the form on their phone or computer. The application contains demographic and eligibility information as well as authorizations, releases and additional verification items.  

For clients who have challenges with technology, we have a dedicated phone line so they can connect to a counselor who will complete the application over the phone with them. To overcome the technology barrier, we also had some staff meet clients outdoors and assist them with paperwork while practicing social distance.

After the application is submitted, we check the documentation and ensure the tenant lives in an eligible property, then we assign the tenant to a counselor via email. The counselor will reach out to the tenant within 24 hours and set up a budget session. After that, the counselor qualifies the tenant based on the documentation and specific COVID-19 related need. As long as tenants can show month-over-month that they have a COVID-19 related hardship, they are eligible for the funds. Our goal is to process applications and approve clients for payment within 72 hours. After the counselor approves the application, the information is sent to our fiscal agent, Social Serve. In turn, they issue funds to the tenant’s property manager within 24 to 48 hours. Tenants need to reapply each month; as long as they remain eligible, tenants may reapply for as many months as they are in need.  

It’s important to note that ERAP-CLT does not issue funding directly to the tenant. Funds are distributed to the property manager and does not cover past due arrears. In turn, the property manager is contractually obligated to credit each customer’s rental obligation. 

How have you handled staffing for the ERAP-CLT program?  

When we started the program, with no additional staffing, it was difficult to manage the volume of applications. To increase our capacity, we had to work around the clock and pull staff from other projects. As we have secured additional funding, we have been able to scale up using temporary employees. In order to determine how many staff we needed, we came up with a formula. In the first month, we received 300+ applications and we had eight people dedicated to the program. For every 80 applications, we need another counselor. Counseling sessions with each applicant take 30 to 45 minutes. Now we are receiving between 800 and 1,000 applications per month. Scaling up in this manner allowed us to avoid having an application backlog and waitlist. 

How have your partnerships with other organizations evolved as the program has expanded?

Our clients have complex needs and often face more than one challenge. Knowing that the majority of applicants have suffered job loss, we started to work with Charlotte Works, our workforce development partner, to help tenants access opportunities. Applicants can opt-in to the workforce development part of our program and work with Charlotte Works to receive either job opportunities or training and education opportunities. 

Our partnership with Legal Aid seeks to assist tenants with housing-related legal issues. Legal Aid provides counseling on tenant rights and rent disputes. Through our direct referrals to Legal Aid we seek to prevent evictions and provide tenants with information about their legal rights. 

The ability to pay utility bills has also become a challenge many of our clients are facing, so we have partnered with the county to provide funding to support those in need of utility assistance.  

We also work with Crisis Assistance Ministry who are able to serve those that aren’t eligible for our program, but are still in need. This could include those who cannot demonstrate that their hardship was due to COVID-19, which is required for our program. Through funding from the Foundation of the Carolinas, we are able to work with Crisis Assistance Ministry to share data and transfer information so the individual doesn’t have to start a new application process. Crisis Assistance Ministry can also provide utility assistance to those who aren’t eligible for our programs.  

ERAP-CLT’s Hotel Guest Rent Relief Program

As the program has progressed, the Housing Partnership has become aware of the need to assist those living in hotels and experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19.

  • ERAP-CLT serves two categories of hotel residents:
  • Homeless individuals who are employed but cannot afford a monthly rent payment.
  • Individuals living in a hotel permanently—defined as more than 30 days and receiving mail at their hotel address.
  • ERAP-CLT can pay up to $2,000 of a guest’s hotel bill and requires only a one-time application. Once they begin receiving funding, the individual is partnered with a social worker to connect them with services and support.  
  • The Housing Partnership works with Charlotte’s 211 service and Social Serve to assist with finding permanent housing for hotel guests who have jobs and can afford a low monthly rent payment. Assistance includes help with first and last month’s rent.
  • It is important to note that the eviction moratorium does not apply to evictions from hotel spaces. After COVID-19, many hotel guests have been evicted and gone into homelessness and shelters. ERAP-CLT uses rental assistance funding to keep people in their hotel space for at least another 30 days, or until they are placed into more permanent housing.

How did you market the program?

In the beginning, we did targeted marking in three properties. We created a flyer that was distributed with late notices, and we also posted flyers in elevators and common spaces. As we expanded the footprint of the program, we began coordinating with the City of Charlotte to get the message out about ERAP, which also included presenting at City Council meetings and working with city council members to get the message out to their constituents.  

Along the way, we have focused on the need to have strong relationships with property managers so they can help promote and explain the program. Given the amount of funding we have received and the need we know is out there, we have developed a marketing plan that utilizes all media outlets in order to reach as many people as possible. This strategy is also informed by the data we have collected since April. We have also begun to work with the Apartment Association in order to do more targeted marketing and reach more people in lower AMI areas. 

Importantly, we have to spend all CARES Act funds by Dec. 31, so we are using every avenue that we can be able to get the message out. 

What lessons do you feel like you’ve learned developing and implementing the program that you would like to share with others standing up a COVID-19 rental assistance program ? 

We have learned that we have to be flexible in how we design the program. As the need continues to grow and we receive new funding sources, each one has different requirements. So we have to be able to adapt based on the funding sources and their particular requirements. At the same time, it has been critical to keep the application process as simple as possible.

We’ve also learned that having multilingual applications is critical for outreach. Initially, we only had an English application, which left out a whole segment of the population. Later, we created mortgage and rent applications in Spanish, which better reflect the diversity of our city.


Erin spoke about the Housing Partnership’s ERAP-CLT work at Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future’s CORES platform in a May 5, 2020 webinar titled, “Developing and Launching a Rental Assistance program.” You can view her presentation here. Learn more about the Housing Partnership’s services and response to COVID-19 here.