UPDATE: LCG passes $7 million rent assistance plan

Hundreds of people in Acadiana without shelter are staying at hotels paid for by FEMA during the pandemic Photo by Travis Gauthier

UPDATE Feb. 10: A joint vote of Lafayette's city and parish councils approved a distribution plan for $7 million consolidated government received in December's federal coronavirus stimulus. Catholic Charities of Acadiana and the community action agency SMILE will be contracted to distribute $3.4 million each, and $460,000 is reserved for grants to other agencies. Funding won't be available until those contracts are signed.

Original story continues below.

The gist: December’s booster shot of federal stimulus will send $7 million in rent and utility assistance to Lafayette Parish, a figure that dwarfs previous local allocations but that advocates say still falls short of projected need. LCG is working through how to get the money out quickly.

Two agencies are likely to split up the allocation. Catholic Charities of Acadiana and the community action agency SMILE will each take half of the grant for distribution. Nothing has been formalized, but representatives from both agencies and LCG have confirmed the outline of the plan. Distribution will require a joint ordinance to begin, which Community Development Director Hollis Conway says is forthcoming.

LCG is exploring new partnerships with the grant, including re-establishing its working relationship with SMILE. Early conversations have included the Senior Pastoral Alliance, a collection of Black ministers mostly representing North Lafayette, but the role for the pastors is unclear. Conway says those discussions are part of a broader plan to fan out his department’s relationships.

“We just want to build a broader base of relationships to discover who’s out there and what they are doing and if there’s a way to partner. We’re a long way from those answers,” Conway says.

The grant is large but likely still too small. A report commissioned by the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance projects that the Lafayette metro area will need $125 million through July 2021 to backstop renters and landlords. Federal moratoria on evictions have kept families housed for the most part — illegal evictions are happening, according to housing advocates — but debts are ballooning while people remain out of work or underpaid.

“We believe the need for emergency rental assistance is greater than $7 million, and this doesn’t touch mortgages,” Catholic Charities CEO Kim Boudreaux says.

All the agencies involved say they are understaffed. LCG itself has a skeleton crew working grant programs, which has slowed its portion of the Lafayette Business Recovery Program, an initiative of the Guillory administration that directed funds to small businesses that housing advocates argued would have been more efficiently used for housing. The BRP has yet to exhaust its funds. Conway is also now serving as acting director of Parks and Recreation, and LCG is weighing a restructuring of the Community Development department, Communications Director Jamie Angelle confirmed to Straight News Online Thursday morning.

Both Catholic Charities and SMILE say they will need to hire more staff to manage the volume of grants. Coming from the U.S. Department of Treasury, this block of funds has leaner reporting requirements, theoretically setting up faster disbursement.

Housing calls are again blowing up 211. 232-HELP, Lafayette’s 211 provider, took 356 calls for shelter in January, up from roughly 250 in December and 150 in November. The Biden administration has authorized FEMA to resume full reimbursements for funding emergency housing in hotels. Project Keystone, the hotel housing program operated by Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, has been functionally on ice after the state housing program froze new bookings. The program has been successful in connecting chronically homeless people with healthcare and more stable housing.

But the clock is still ticking. Catholic Charities ran out of a routine housing allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in about three months, processing roughly $650,000 for 463 households and closing its application portal in November. Another 403 households are left “pending,” and many more were turned away for lack of eligibility, Boudreaux says. Those funds were restricted for households in Lafayette city limits; the treasury dollars cover all of Lafayette Parish.

SMILE has distributed approximately $500,000 over the last three to four months out of a separate HUD-related program. The agency conserved just under $100,000, according to SMILE CEO Craig Mathews, as a hedge against the pandemic’s longevity and the constantly moving sunset on eviction moratoriums. The agency ran out of $1.3 million in Covid utility relief in five months.

“It’s not a lot of money,” Mathews says of the $7 million in relief. “We’re talking about families in arrears somewhere in the range of eight to 10 months or 12 months in some instances. ...That could be $12,000 in one household.”

What to watch for: Speed is the name of the game with these funds. Delays and bureaucratic bumps locked up the state’s emergency rent program, for instance, which has not spent the $24 million program it launched in July. Getting relief out quickly and cleanly is a challenge.