Anchorage pilot program to provide coronavirus relief for small businesses and renters

City Hall in downtown Anchorage.
City Hall in downtown Anchorage. (Staff photo)

The Anchorage Assembly has approved a financial assistance pilot program to provide small businesses and renters in the city with coronavirus relief funds.

City officials said up to 100 eligible small businesses will each be able to apply for $10,000 grants to help sustain them, after the city ordered many to halt operations more than a month ago with the aim of preventing the spread of the virus. The relief program also includes funding to help pay rent for Anchorage residents whose finances have been hit hard by the pandemic, for example, those who’ve been laid off during the economic downturn.

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Chris Schutte, the city’s director of economic and community development, told the Assembly at its meeting Tuesday night that he expects a large number of applicants.

“I think it’s badly needed in the business community now. I do think that the burn rate on this money will be quick,” Schutte said.

The pilot program will allow the city to learn more about the level of demand for such relief, and the city’s intent is to expand the program in the future, Schutte said.

The $2 million for small businesses and renters is part of a larger $12 million allocation for the city’s overall coronavirus response, and the city hopes to recoup some or all of the money with emergency funds from the federal CARES Act.

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In a press conference Wednesday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said concern from some Assembly members that the city’s property taxpayers might be on the hook for paying for the relief program if the federal CARES Act money is not applicable are unfounded.

“Taxpayers are not at risk with these funds, these are clearly covered in the CARES Act,” Berkowitz said. “There’s no jeopardy for taxpayers and people should be aware of it, and those who might be promoting that story I think are more interested in sowing discord than in solving an economic problem.”

Schutte agreed and said these types of relief measures are specifically written into the CARES Act.

Current plans are for eligible businesses to be selected by lottery. To be eligible, a business would need to show that it has suffered a financial loss due to the pandemic and related economic shutdown. The business would need to meet certain criteria on its number of employees — between two and seven employees — and it would be ineligible if it had already received federal coronavirus relief money.

The Mayor’s Office also reported a spike in phone calls from residents seeking rental assistance and included funds for that in its coronavirus relief program.

The rental assistance money will be available through a United Way program accessible by dialing 211. Anchorage residents who call will be asked a series of questions to determine their eligibility, and funds to help pay rent will be disbursed directly to their landlords, Schutte said.

Schutte said he and other Anchorage city officials are moving quickly to set up the program, but he said it likely will not be ready for applicants until after next week.