COVID-19 rental assistance rollout in Spokane spurs frustration, but few alternatives exist

<p><p>It’s maybe the one thing on which landlords and tenants seem to agree: The wait for rental assistance is enormously frustrating.</p></p><p><p>City of Spokane officials defend its progress in distributing millions of dollars to tenants who have fallen behind and the landlords to whom they owe a check.</p></p><p><p>At least some elected leaders have suggested the city find a new vendor to handle its rental assistance programs, citing frustrations aired by landlords in recent weeks.</p></p><p><p>But at this stage, switching up the program may set the city back weeks and spur confusion among those who need assistance.</p></p><p><p>The city launched its rental assistance program this summer and tapped three organizations to lead distribution: Family Promise of Spokane, The Carl Maxey Center and LiveStories, which has handled the bulk of funding.</p></p><p><p>LiveStories is a Seattle-based analytics company that helped Spokane distribute COVID-19 aid to businesses in 2020. Spokane is not its only client – it’s also helping other governments, like Skagit County, distribute aid.</p></p><p><p>The city claims its average turnaround time for rental assistance has been 45 days from the time an application is submitted, compared to the statewide average of 72 days.</p></p><p><p>City officials also point to a Department of Treasury report showing that the city had spent 88% of its first round of Emergency Rental Assistance program funds through September, which ranked it second-highest in the state behind Spokane County.</p></p><p><p>According to its most recent figures, the city has committed all of its $13.9 million first round of Emergency Rental Assistance program dollars and is now working through its next tranche totaling more than $12 million.</p></p><p><p>Mayor Nadine Woodward said she thinks the city has done a good job of getting rental assistance money out into the community.</p></p><p><p>However, she said she learned during recent community forums on American Rescue Plan funding that “a gap exists to help people access the rental assistance.” She recalled how one property manager didn’t know how to go about accessing rental assistance herself, let alone directing her tenants to it.</p></p><p><p>Woodward suggested the city could use navigators who would assist people in applying for rental assistance, but she acknowledged staffing such a program could be an issue given City Hall’s well-documented hiring struggles.</p></p><p><p>“That’s the conversation we’re going to have,” Woodward said.</p></p><p><p>Councilman Michael Cathcart is pushing the city to consider issuing another request for proposals to find a different rental assistance vendor.</p></p><p><p>Cathcart said he’s heard from landlords who are frustrated at the latency with which their rental assistance applications are processed. A new RFP would help the city determine if a nonprofit like Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP), which handles the county’s rental assistance program, could do the job better.</p></p><p><p>Cathcart is not concerned that switching vendors would spur confusion among those who apply.</p></p><p><p>“We’re all capable of spitting and chewing gum at the same time,” Cathcart said.</p></p><p><p>Adnan Mahmud, CEO of LiveStories, acknowledged the frustrations and said the company is always looking for ways to improve its process.</p></p><p><p>However, he also explained the reasons why a rental assistance application can take weeks to process.</p></p><p><p>When an application comes in, LiveStories employees look to ensure it meets federal requirements and is eligible for funding. If it’s not complete, the company has to go back-and-forth with the tenant – or tenant representative from a community agency – to resolve the issue.</p></p><p><p>Then, LiveStories has to verify with the landlord that the rental assistance payment is the right amount. From there, it asks the city for the actual money before passing it along to the person in need of assistance.</p></p><p><p>“There is some lag that’s baked into this because of the way the program is structured. It’s not something that we can circumvent,” Mahmud said.</p></p><p><p>Everything throughout the application has to be validated, Mahmud stressed.</p></p><p><p>“The last thing we would want is there to be fraudulent cases because to the federal government that looks worse for the city,” Mahmud said, noting that LiveStories has found and flagged fraudulent applications. He did not say if those were discovered in Spokane or elsewhere.</p></p><p><p>If the application is complete when submitted, the majority are funded within 30 days, according to Mahmud.</p></p><p><p>Mahmud said the company will make its application and website available in 40 languages next week.</p></p>