King County rent relief dollars expected to start flowing faster

Aug 22, 2021, 9:27 AM | Updated: Aug 23, 2021, 11:08 am
(AP file photo)
(AP file photo)

King County has not moved as quickly as neighboring counties when it comes to doling out federal relief dollars for renters and landlords.

As reported in the Seattle Times last week, the state’s most populous county had distributed $6.5 million, or 4.5%, of $145 million in available federal funding to help struggling renters and landlords.

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Pierce County had spent about 59% of $53.4 million in federal and state money, and Snohomish County had spent about 47% of $57.8 million, according to county spokespeople.

But it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

“The comparison there is that King County has about $145 million that we are working to get out,” said Mark Ellerbrook, who heads up the county division that oversees the rental relief program, in an interview with KIRO Radio. “And I think they were on the order of like $50 million. So there is an order of magnitude that we are dealing with. And I think for us, really, it points to why we have gotten this IT system approach because, ultimately, when we’re talking about assisting 25,000 to 35,000 tenants, for us to be able to keep track of all of those records and be accountable to the federal government — having large stacks of paper, I think is something we felt like we couldn’t do with the sort of volume that we are looking at.”

Getting that IT system up and running is largely the reason the county hasn’t been able to move as quickly as others.

“The county has worked to develop a data system to help us manage the funds and ensure compliance with all of the federal requirements, and to allow us to manage all of the bits of information that go into approving any tenant’s files,” Ellerbrook said. “As of a couple of weeks ago, that data system is operational. That doesn’t mean it’s doing everything perfectly. There are components and bugs and things that need to get worked out, but the system is working.”

Now, he says, from the system perspective, “We are simultaneously working with all of our providers to get them up to speed on how to use that system. And at the same time, moving tenants through the program as fast as we can so that we can get landlords paid on their behalf.”

In fact, they had already been able to get another $4 million or so out the door just last week.

“Since the system started paying out and we were able to start paying out, which was about the middle of July, we’ve been able to assist over 1,000 tenants and with a little over $10 million out,” Ellerbrook said.

With that data system up and running, they can keep getting more and more of those dollars into the many hands that need them. Ellerbrook says they also expect to bring on more staff.

“We’re actually going to bring in some additional people to do direct connection with tenants and landlords where we see that, for example, a file is sitting incomplete,” Ellerbrook said. “We can reach out to that person and say, ‘Hey, we need you to put in your tenant, your income information,’ and then we can move that group through. And I think the data system allows us to understand where hang ups are happening so that we can address those directly.”

Ellerbrook estimates that King County is servicing between 25,000 and 35,000 households and tenants who are already registered in the system.

“I need to caveat that by saying that this is for people who are at 50% of area median [income and] below because that’s where we have targeted our program. Our estimate of need, which is not scientific, is about 60,000 households,” he said.

They believe they should be able to get assistance to all those who apply.

“We know that we’re going to have probably an additional $150 million or so coming to us from the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as ARPA, the federal government,” Ellerbrook said. “So there’s going to be more money coming to that. Our sense and, again, I think it’s a little bit dependent on how much assistance each household needs, but I think we’re going to be close to being able to assist the number of households in our system.”

That is that roughly 35,000 or so who qualify at for the program at 50% of the median income – about $50,000 a year for a family of four in King County.

“There are still 25,000, by our estimate, households that are still at that 50% of area median income that are going to be there currently outside our system,” Ellerbrook said.

It’s not clear how those people will get the help they need.

“Our hope is that at either the federal level or the state level, there will continue to be additional assistance put into this program, so that we sustain households to the point where they have the income and the economics to stay where they want to be,” Ellerbrook said. “Ultimately, we’re trying to prevent homelessness through this program, too. I mean, people being evicted only exacerbates a whole other major issue that we are dealing with.”

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King County rent relief dollars expected to start flowing faster