Montgomery Co. Fails To Distribute $7.1 Million In Rental Assistance

Montgomery County Gazette

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By: Jessica Shorten

CONROE - Montgomery County is about to return $7.1 million in 2021 federal emergency renter’s assistance instead of distributing it to Montgomery County residents on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.

On the agenda for Tuesday’s Commissioners Court, the Court has placed the item on the consent agenda so there will be no public discussion or explanation as to why the funds went unused in Montgomery County.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the county had until November 15, 2021 to either certify the obligated grant funds or present a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) “to describe measures they will take to avoid an excess funds designation by improving their obligation rates and expenditure ratios.”

Since the county does not have an approved PIP, the remaining $7.1 million originally meant for rental assistance in Montgomery County is being reallocated by the U.S. Treasury to other jurisdictions in Texas who have obligated all their rental assistance funds and need additional grant money.

Unfortunately, the rental assistance program in Montgomery County was overwhelmed with 21,794 applications in 2020, so when the 2021 funding became available, the county chose to continue working existing and unprocessed applications and did not open a separate application period for the 2021 grant funds to keep renters from having to reapply.

Statistics from the U.S. Treasury reflect Montgomery County’s delay in processing 2021 rental assistance. Between January 5, 2021, when the 2021 program opened and May 31, 2021, the county processed zero rental assistance under this program. Since then, 12 applications were processed in June, three in July, and six in August.

When the U.S. Treasury notified the county on September 24, 2021 of their intent to reallocate unused rental assistance funds, the county processed 45 applications in September 2021 and continued processing applications in October and November.

By Friday, November 12, 2021, less than 57% of the 2021 emergency rental assistance had been distributed to Montgomery County residents. However, the county still claimed 100% of the administrative fees for managing the grant funds.

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Sherrie Shorten/Montgomery County Gazette

2020 Rental Assistance

In late 2020, previous Community Development Block Grant Director Dr. Joanne Ducharme faced a daunting problem: trying to spread the original $12 million in 2020 federal grant funds to provide rental assistance to tens of thousands of Montgomery County residents.

The rental assistance portal was shut down on August 13, 2020, just three days after opening due to the sheer number of applications and the staggering deficit in funding. “We know perfectly well that anyone applying now this late in the game is not going to get assistance. We just don’t have enough money for that,” stated Dr. Ducharme during an August 25, 2020 meeting of Commissioners Court.

With each applicant eligible to receive $2,500 and 21,794 applications, Montgomery County really needed $54 million to cover the immediate need without taking in any more applications but only had $12 million to administer in 2020. Not to mention, the CDBG department had to rely on the assistance of local non-profits including Community Assistance Center, Interfaith of The Woodlands, and Mission Northeast in order to work through the applications.

“It’s one on one. It’s one at a time, and it takes time,” said Dr. Ducharme. “It takes a few seconds to fill out a quick application, but it takes a long time to get documentation together and talk to people.”

The Treasury issued a new wave of funding in January 2021 which provided an additional $18.1 million for 2021 rental assistance. Rather than opening a new application period for the 2021 grant funds, the county chose to continue working through the existing 21,794 applications.

The administration of the 2020 and 2021 rental assistance grants was severely undercut by a lack of staff able to process the grants and applications. In 2020, Dr. Ducharme was provided two temporary staff members to process the 2020 rental assistance applications. In 2021, Ducharme requested an additional five personnel in order to bring the process of reviewing and processing applications back in-house after the non-profits refused to take part in the new round of 2021 grant administration due to their own understaffing issues.

The additional personnel could have been paid with the administration funds in the grant, but the Commissioners Court denied the additional temporary personnel during Commissioners Court on February 23, 2021. While Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack and County Judge Mark Keough denied the personnel under the guise of not wanting to “empire-build” by adding more employees; they were all on board with providing 5% across the board pay raises during this past budget cycle.

The effort on behalf of Montgomery County to reach the underserved portions of the county was more than negligent. The court denied requests for additional temporary positions to process the grants and did not oversee the process of these applications.

Instead, renters in Montgomery County were provided no assistance in the first two quarters of 2021 and the county only started helping in the third quarter as they realized they were at risk of losing the funding altogether.

Now, the unobligated funds will be reallocated by the Treasury to other areas who have demonstrated more need, such as Harris County and City of Houston, who went through almost all their $143.9 million allocation in the first three quarters of 2021.

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