In mere days, Mississippi will end its participation in the federal pandemic rental assistance program that has kept people facing eviction in their homes during the past two years of economic turbulence.
The state still has $130 million in federal cash to run the program, but Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said early this month that next Monday would be the last day to apply for assistance. Once Mississippi finishes processing the remaining claims, they will be returning the leftover money to the U.S. Treasury, which maintains oversight of the spending.
The program's end comes as rental prices in Mississippi have skyrocketed and a large percentage of those behind on their rent or mortgage said they are at risk of losing their home in the next two months, according to U.S. Census data.
The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program, or RAMP, offered up to 15 months of rental and utility bill assistance for those in need. It was funded by two Covid-19 economic bills passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021, which provided billions of dollars of rental relief to states to administer to people economically disadvantaged by the pandemic.
Though unemployment continues to decline in Mississippi and the majority of participants in the program are employed, Reeves said RAMP disincentivized work.
"This program has essentially become: If for whatever reason you can’t pay your rent or utility bill, taxpayers will pay them for you," Reeves said in a statement earlier this month. "Mississippi will continue to say no to these types of liberal handouts that encourage people to stay out of the workforce. Instead, we’re going to say yes to conservative principles and policies that result in more people working.”
Reeves' decision hits Mississippi as the country experiences rising housing costs and fewer economic protections. Nationwide, median listing prices for houses were up 16.6% in July from the previous year, and rent grew by 14.1% in June 2020 over June 2021, according to Realtor.com reports.
Jacob Leibenluft, the U.S. Treasury's chief recovery officer, said programs such as RAMP, which fall under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, have helped to keep evictions below historical averages.
He said the Treasury Department has continued to strongly urge states to use the funding to serve tenants and noted that more than 6.5 million payments have been made to renters facing eviction as of June. Even if the money is returned by states, he said it will continue to go toward housing.
"As we have done elsewhere in cases where funds are not used by the original recipient," Leibenluft said, "we will continue to reallocate available funds where possible with a priority on keeping funds in state where there is outstanding need.”
Housing rights advocates and participants in the Mississippi program said the issue in their state isn't finding work, like Reeves said, it's finding wages that can pay for growing living costs. RAMP has been a huge aid to fill the gap, even though it often took months to arrive.
Teresa Walker, 45, a hairdresser in Jackson, said the pandemic caused her to lose numerous customers. While business has picked up, it's still difficult to meet her rent of $935. She's applied for the program, as well as for jobs at Target and Walmart to help her pay the approximately $4,000 she owes her landlord.
Because the process is so slow-moving, she hasn't heard back since applying three months ago, and her bills are stacking up.
"They don't care. They just don't care," Walker said. "The amount of applications they're getting shows there is a need, and for them to suggest people like me aren't working? It's a slap in the face. It's very insulting and degrading. You're just not being sensitive to people's needs and understanding it."
Data from Mississippi Home Corporation, which operates RAMP, shows the state was still processing nearly 17,000 applications as of July 31.
Rivers Orman, a spokesman for the state agency dedicated to expanding access to moderate- and low-income housing, said in an email that they "have served over 36,000 households and have distributed over $200 million in funding to help those who were most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic" since June 2021.
Because they are still processing so many applications, Orman could not say how much of the $130 million will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, but since Reeve's announcement they “have seen an uptick in new applications and recertifications."
The typical applicant in Mississippi was Black and female, Home Corps data shows. Less than a third of applicants were unemployed, but nearly 70% earned less than the area median income where they lived.
A coalition of nonprofits that works to help people apply for the program said it is difficult to access, particularly in a state that struggles with high illiteracy rates and low broadband availability.
Jeremiah Smith, who leads 662 Tenants Union in a small Delta town, said he knew numerous renters who dropped out of the process because it took months to receive a response, and Mississippi Home Corporation was often difficult to contact.
"The program was broken from the start," said Smith, who helped dozens of tenants apply.
Paheadra Robinson, who runs the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative in Jackson, said her group traveled across the state to operate clinics for those who needed help applying for the program.
She said they would have to bring computers and help people sign up for email accounts for the first time. More clinics were planned over the next month, but they will have to be canceled because of Reeve's decision, she said.
"A lot of these people were able to afford where they were living prior to this explosion of rental increases, and now this spike is causing major financial issues for families," Robinson said. "It's just unaffordable for a lot of people, and I don't think that was given proper consideration by the leadership of this state."
Other states with Republican governors, such as Nebraska and Arkansas, have previously declined the federal funding that would help residents pay for housing and utilities.
Govs. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas rejected hundreds of millions of dollars that would have been directed to their states, claiming they were shielding residents from socialist programs they didn't need.
"We must guard against big government socialism where people are incentivized not to work but are instead encouraged to rely on government handouts well after an emergency is over," Ricketts said in March. "We cannot justify asking for federal relief when Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and we are no longer in a state of emergency.”
But nonprofits in those states have told a different story since the governors rejected the federal aid in the spring.
Together Omaha, which operated the rental assistance application process for the state, has had to scramble to provide rental assistance since then, said CEO Mike Hornacek.
"Across the board, we're all experiencing the perfect storm that we were all worried about in the nonprofit sector, which is the need is continuing at the level that it did during the pandemic and the funding is going away," he said.
"Unfortunately, in certain cases like ours in Nebraska, some of the leadership just doesn't seem to understand that it's not as simple as people need to get back to work."