Pandemic rent relief program received applications for about 1 in every 10 Alaskans

An aerial view of a town bordered by mountains and water.
Juneau’s Aak’w Village District, formerly the Willoughby District, on June 25, 2019. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

About one out of every 10 Alaskans were in a household that applied for relief from a massive pandemic rent relief program earlier this year.

Since the application period for the federally funded program closed in early March, a small army of nonprofit housing and tribal employees have been processing some 25,000 income-qualified applications to cover up to a year of rent and utilities.

Daniel Delfino directs the planning and program development department at the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., which is administering the program.

They anticipated a lot of applications after a different relief program was swamped last year, so they built their paperwork and review process with speed in mind. Delfino said they even used stopwatch tests to gauge how quickly workers could process different versions of the paperwork.

From the administrative side, that’s worked out well. But it’s a little different from applicants’ perspective.

“Well, uh, it’s a mix,” he said. “So the folks that have received money, I think in large part are happy. The folks that are still waiting for money, it’s no consolation to them that we’re one of the fastest states in the country to get the money out the door if they can’t pay their rent or their utility bill.”

Of the 25,257 applications that cleared the initial income and documentation hurdles, about 60% remain to be processed.

The program is getting about 600 to 800 calls a day, Delfino said, mostly from people checking their status. A status checker on their website is also getting about 800 unique user visits a day.

That includes Karla Pineda.

“It looks like it’s a little slow, because I think I’ve been waiting for, like, three months already,” Pineda said.

She’s a single mom who’s come to Juneau seasonally for about nine years. Last year, she made Juneau her home year-round.

She said getting this help will be a big deal for her. She’s been able to make her rent by working for a company cleaning homes, and as an on-call assistant aide at the Juneau Pioneer Home, but she can’t really save money.

“As you know in Juneau, it’s not that cheap,” Pineda said. “The rentals are expensive, especially if you want to live in a secure place, especially with a kid, it’s not easy to find.”

There’s a big bucket of federal cash available for the program, about $242 million. That figure represents a combination of AHFC’s share, pooled with similar funds for the Municipality of Anchorage and 148 tribal entities that AHFC is administering the program for. The bucket is so big, state housing officials think it’s enough to pay rent for everyone eligible for a year.

Statewide, about $26 million has been paid out so far on behalf of more than 10,000 households.

“That’s what’s happening right now,” Delfino said. “We’re trying to wipe out every past due balance that people have that they walked into the application queue with.”

After overdue bills are taken care of, landlords and utility companies will start getting checks for three months at a time going forward for up to a year.

“I’m not anticipating a challenge exhausting that money,” Delfino said. “We received a massive response. It’s, I believe, over 10% of our state are represented in the households that applied to this program. That’s 78,000 and change.”

And there’s even more federal funding destined for the program that could extend the benefits to up to 18 months.

“Right now, we’re just trying to make sure that we get the first round of money out to the people who haven’t received their first payment yet,” Delfino said. “That’s our big priority, it’s just making sure that we get through the queue first.”

Money for the second phase is pending in the state operating budget bill.

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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