DENVER — It's the first of the month, and rent is due. If Coloradans are feeling the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the holiday season, there are millions of federal dollars still available to help with rent.
Sarah Buss is the director of the Office of Housing Recovery at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). Her role was created in August of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained Colorado's Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) provides short-term rental assistance for any household experiencing a negative financial impact as a result of the pandemic.
“We have helped about 16,000 households (statewide) with this assistance thus far," said Buss.
ERAP can help cover rent, going as far back as April of 2020. It can include past due, current, and two additional months of rent. The maximum is 15 months of assistance. An individual or family must have a median income of 80% or below the median income of their area to be eligible for the funds.
“You have to be at risk of housing instability, and that is something that you self-attest to. So basically, if you know that you're behind on rent, then that can be enough," said Buss. "You do not need to be facing eviction. Please do not wait until you're facing eviction to apply, because that's when it can be difficult to get the application approved quickly."
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Buss said the state received nearly $248 million in the first round of ERAP, which she explained can technically be used until September of 2022. She said the second round totaled to approximately $196 million, and must be spent by September of 2025.
She said, on average, the state has been paying around $6,800 per household. Nearly $60 million has been distributed in Denver County.
A tenant and landlord must both submit an application for the ERAP funds. Buss said it is difficult to estimate exactly how long an application takes to get approved.
“If we have somebody who completes the application thoroughly, and the landlord is responsive and ready, then they could be approved within two weeks and then paid within a week after that. But that's if everything is really lined up, and they've submitted all their documentation," said Buss.
The Executive Director and Co-Founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, Zach Neumann, said there is an affordable housing crisis in Colorado.
“Don't take out that payday loan. Don't go into debt to pay your rent. There are programs right now to help you if you're struggling. They're already paid for. The money is already here in our state. And if you are struggling, you should take advantage of those funds," said Neumann.
Family Promise of Greater Denver works with people experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness. They do so by providing a spectrum of services, ranging from shelter and meals to rental assistance.
“As the eviction moratorium ended in September, we've had an influx of calls, especially for rental assistance," said Courtney Jensen, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Denver.
Family Promise has different funds for rental assistance that are not ERAP. Jensen said all of their money is likely already allocated for December. She estimated they give out between $30,000-$40,000 monthly.
Other programs that can help people locate rental assistance include Mile High United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services, and the Salvation Army.
The latest figures from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) show the unemployment rate declined to 5.4%. Those with CDLE said Colorado is outpacing the rest of the country when it comes to job recovery.
Still, federal numbers show Colorado has one of the highest "quit rates" in the nation. “A good portion of that, I would say close to 50%, is natural retirements," said Joe Barela, executive director of CDLE.
Barela said the pandemic made many people reconsider their jobs, and personal reasons may have spurred professional changes.
“With the record number of job openings we have in Colorado, people are saying, 'hey, maybe it's a good time for me to quit my job and reevaluate, and maybe go into a different career,'" said Barela.
Barela said the unemployment benefits available for Coloradans are partial wage replacement.
“We've seen month-over-month gains in jobs here in Colorado. We've also seen a decrease in our unemployment rate, which is a good thing. But we're very close to pre-pandemic levels of unemployment initial claims on a weekly basis. So, we hovered around 2,000, pre-March of 2020. We're right around 2,100 initial claims in state unemployment as of last week," said Barela.
Barela said primarily, that means Coloradans are returning to work.