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Need for rental assistance grows as Dane County issues funding

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MADISON (WKOW) -- In just two weeks, more than 4,000 Dane County renters have applied for help to pay their bills.

Many are still hurting as the pandemic continues. Some still aren't back to work yet, because they face another month of rent due on July 1.

"COVID has impacted people on many levels, particularly economically for a lot of people," said County Executive Joe Parisi. "A lot of people are at risk for eviction, so along with all of the public health guidance we give and all of the work that we do to keep people from getting sick from COVID, we're also focused very intensely on helping people who are suffering from the economic impacts of this virus outbreak."

The county created a $10 million eviction prevention fund to reach those most in need. Tenant Resource Center is processing the applications.

Executive Director Robin Sereno tells 27 News the program has issued more than $3 million to landlords so far, to hold off evictions for about 7,500 people. $5 million more is pending right now.

TRC staff members are prioritizing those who are most in need.

"After 3-4 months of this, of being without work, and just really that desperate, desperate need," Sereno said. "There's not a morning that I come in that I'm not met with somebody in the parking lot, or walking up, asking me if I can please help them with their application."

Of those who've applied, 78.9 percent are minority renters and 73.3 percent are women. 1,550 of the 3,377 applications that came in as of June 29 were for families facing the possibility of homelessness.

Single black mothers have been the majority of those who've asked TRC for help in the past 20 years, according to Sereno.

Even with the help available, Sereno says the need is growing. Renters still facing job losses have no way out.

"People have been laid off or furloughed for so long, or just terminated from their employment. Now, as their leases are coming up, they're not being renewed, which means they have this notice that they have 30 days to find a new place and it's impossible to find a new place when you have zero income," Sereno said.

The $10 million fund aimed to serve about 8,900 applicants, based on estimates of rental rates in Dane County. But now, Sereno predicts with more months of rent to cover and higher costs for many tenants, they'll need more money to help everyone in need.

"We need three times, four times more just to be able to try to stabilize our community and stop this, especially as we're seeing these rises now in COVID cases," said Sereno.

County Executive Joe Parisi tells 27 News the county doesn't have a prediction for how many people may face eviction this summer, but his focus right now is on making sure renters are aware of the resources available right now.

"We do know that 38,000 people have had to apply for unemployment benefits since this pandemic began and a lot of those folks are still underemployed or haven't been called back to work yet, so this is something that's going to be with us for a while and something we're going to have to stay focused on very intently," he said.

One way TRC is aiming to reach those who need help the most is by partnering with other organizations, like Centro Hispano and Freedom, Inc., to reach the communities most at risk.

As of Wednesday, the Latino Consortium for Action, connected with Centro Hispano, has issued $760,000 of the fund to about 700 Latinx households.

Meanwhile, courts are continuing on with scheduled evictions, adding new hearing days to process an influx in cases since the ban on eviction filings lifted May 26.

At that time, Legal Action of Wisconsin predicted the pandemic would lead to 44,000 new evictions.

Heidi Wegleitner, an attorney for Legal Action, says the eviction crisis has gotten worse since then.

"People are facing eviction, through no fault of their own, while they are waiting on their Unemployment Checks and rent assistance funds to come through. Some of them are facing eviction while also fighting COVID-19 and being told by their medical providers to quarantine.  It is devastating," Wegleitner said in an email to 27 News.

Online court hearings have been a challenge for renters who face internet access issues and without access to the courthouse, many tenants facing eviction aren't able to connect with the resources available to help them, according to Wegleitner.

Soon, there could be even more evictions, when a ban on evictions for those living in federally-supported housing lifts on July 25.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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