Rental assistance concerns grow as government shutdown continues; officials unable to speak on impact to La.

Updated: Jan. 7, 2019 at 5:00 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Calls to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) New Orleans Field Office are being met with a brief automated message as of late.

“HUD is closed. Please call back when the government is open again," the recording says.

The message could be of concern to some Americans.

As a stalemate continues between President Donald Trump, who demands the government provision $5 billion for his administration’s efforts to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, and congressional Democrats who continue to strongly oppose the effort, Americans served by HUD will potentially bear the brunt of the consequences.

HUD officials report their department is currently reviewing whether it will have any available funds to renew roughly 1,150 contracts for its Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) program that are currently suspended. Those contracts expired in early January and HUD is legally unable to renew them during the shutdown.

“The number of expiring contracts will increase as time goes on, as we anticipate approximately 500 additional contracts will expire and be up for renewal in January and 550 in February. Without additional funding, HUD cannot renew these contracts or obligate funds; doing so would be in violation of The Antideficiency Act,” a HUD official said in information provided to WAFB.

A letter sent to landlords around the country Friday, Jan. 4 instructs them to access reserve funding, where available, to cover any shortfalls. The move is a last ditch effort to prevent evictions until HUD is able to pull together funding.

“Historically, HUD has reimbursed owners following a shutdown and never experienced evictions,” noted information provided by a HUD official.

However, the current shutdown, which entered its 17 day Monday, Jan. 7, is entering uncharted territory as one of the longest shutdowns in United States history. Previously, a shutdown in September of 1978 lasted 18 days, and the longest shutdown in December of 1995 lasted 21 days.

A majority of HUD’s 7,500 employees have been furloughed without pay, according to HUD’s contingency plan. That means employees are unavailable, and in fact, prohibited from doing any work, including responding to phone calls or emails. Additionally, many of HUD’s welfare responsibilities have been suspended, including health and safety inspections at HUD-sponsored housing.

The remaining staff members are only available to manage emergency situations that pose “an imminent threat to the safety of human life or the protection of property.” That includes housing and emergency services for the homeless, according to HUD’s contingency plan.

A HUD official was not able to list specifics on the impact to Louisiana residents, like the potential number of landlords the letter was distributed to or how many contracts in the state had expired. Other officials in HUD’s New Orleans Field Office were unable to be reached due to the shutdown.

HUD’s PBRA program represents approximately 23,000 contracts serving 1.2 million units. The vast majority of these contracts (about 21,150) had fully executed agreements before the lapse occurred Dec. 21, and their January and February payments have been obligated and will be disbursed without interruption, according to HUD.

Contracts are continually being renewed on a rolling basis, a process which requires executed agreements signed by both the property owner and HUD. That means without a full staff, procedural issues could cause long-term problems or put a full stop to a renewal.

Low-income families make up 72 percent of HUD-assisted households and more than half of those receiving vouchers are elderly or persons with disabilities, HUD reports.

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