Despite new rules that would put the cost burden fully on the federal government, Louisiana’s hotel programs are ending, including the state’s largest in Acadiana.
Hotel rooms arranged by local housing advocates kept hundreds of people warm during last week’s crushing freeze. Donations poured in across the Acadiana region. But the makeup of people in need underscores rising housing insecurity in the area.
Calling home: Sheltering in hotels to escape coronavirus, Acadiana’s homeless got back on their feet
While coronavirus raged, hundreds found their way to hotels where case managers could connect them with food, doctors and income, often for the first time.
The gist: Identified as a place at “higher risk” for evictions, Lafayette will receive a second and larger round of federal stimulus dollars intended for housing aid during the pandemic. At just under $1.4 million, the block grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development nearly doubles the last allocation Lafayette received, one the Guillory administration used to stand up a small business grant program.
Housing advocates say the money adds flexibility but likely falls short of the overall need. Hundreds of Acadiana households remain in hotels with FEMA footing the bill, although that program is no longer taking on new clients. Sustained unemployment threatens to add more need to a largely under-resourced network of nonprofits, which is coordinating responses not only to the pandemic but also recovery efforts after Hurricane Laura. Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing now has case managers helping those in the hotel program moving into stable housing. ARCH Executive Director Leigh Rachal says the latest round of funding could help that process move more quickly or go toward a longer-term solution. Acadiana’s shelter system is tapped out and stretched to its limits by the pandemic.
“It’s sort of like a community operating without an emergency room,” Rachal says of the lack of shelter space. “If you have a medical crisis, you need an emergency room. These funds, because they’re so very flexible, provide some opportunity for the community to really think through what we need to do more holistically.”
Hollis Conway, director of Lafayette’s Community Development Department, says his office is working on a community needs assessment to sort out the best use of the money.
HUD’s messaging on the allocation focuses on housing. In a press release announcing the nearly $2 billion allocation, HUD said it is exhausting what remains of the $5 billion set aside for community development block grants through the CARES to help “places with households facing higher risk of eviction.”
“These funds can help households struggling to meet their rental or mortgage obligations to stay afloat as our nation continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson said in the HUD release.
Communities used funds from earlier rounds to tackle a variety of emerging needs, including housing, business support or to buy equipment like personal protective gear and testing supplies. Lafayette used all of its first grant — $852,000 — on a small business program that has struggled to move cash quickly and widely as promised. LCG has since shuffled around $560,000 in regular federal housing dollars and will chip $100,000 out of the small business recovery program to meet housing assistance needs.
Louisiana will receive $27 million in this round of block grants. HUD’s release says states received priority for funding based on their level of unemployment and the current severity of their coronavirus outbreaks. Louisiana experienced one of the worst coronavirus rebounds, which has abated in recent weeks.
Hundreds of thousands in Louisiana remain out of work or underemployed. Around 232,000 Louisiana workers filed continued jobless claims for the week ending Sept. 9. Just over 10,000 people in Lafayette Parish filed continued claims that same week. In May, the state peaked at 321,000 claims. Acadiana’s shelters remain tapped out. This week, the $300 boost to unemployment checks tacked on by the federal government will end, reducing the maximum weekly benefit to $247, among the lowest in the nation. Economists project Louisiana will not have recovered all jobs lost by 2021.
The gist: After months of resisting calls to do more to keep vulnerable families housed, the Guillory administration will carve out a small portion of coronavirus relief money for rent and utility assistance. LCG committed Tuesday to shift $100,000 out of emergency funds currently dedicated to its business relief program and repurpose another $300,000 in regular housing program money to rent relief.
Most of the money LCG put toward emergency rent assistance has come from shuffling around housing dollars it already manages. The $100,000 reallocation will be cut from the $850,000 federal coronavirus relief grant the Guillory administration and LEDA used to set up, over the objections of housing advocates, the Lafayette Business Recovery Program, which has come up short of its initial promise to help hundreds of small businesses. Another $300,000 would be allocated to rent and utility assistance from the Community Development Department’s regular housing program budget.
“It’s been difficult to get the funding to these businesses,” Community Development Director Hollis Conway told council members Tuesday night, reiterating that his staff is overtasked in administering the program.
Altogether, LCG has committed $660,000 to direct housing support, including $260,000 the administration offered up as a compromise to housing advocates earlier this year. Leigh Rachal, who heads the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, says that money is only just now hitting the street, and it’s moving quickly.
Lafayette’s business grant program has struggled to get money into the hands of the businesses it was sold to help. Called the Lafayette Business Recovery Program, it combined the $850,000 in coronavirus relief funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a $200,000 matching grant from LEDA, which has managed the public-facing portal for applications. Approximately 1,000 businesses applied.
To date, 33 businesses have been approved for funding. Sixteen businesses qualified for the more restrictive HUD reimbursements managed by LCG, accounting for $119,000 in grants. Another 17 businesses were funded by LEDA’s funding pool, not burdened by federal red tape, totalling $118,000. Three more applications are pending approval for LEDA funds. Conway said another dozen or so applicants are in the pipeline on the LCG side. It has more than $600,000 remaining to spend.
Regulatory snags have slowed the program. Faced with onerous documentation requirements, the vast majority of applicants have washed out of the multi-tiered process. As of mid-August, the program had moved just $26,000 of the federal award. LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux forged ahead to quickly disburse the portion put up by his agency. LEDA’s dollars do not come up with the thorny restrictions that complicate the HUD-funded reimbursements.
“In the end, many businesses will get the help they need to continue operations through the BRP,” Gothreaux said in a statement announcing the latest awards this week. “We won’t have enough funds to help everyone, but we want to assist as many businesses as we can that were forced to close or limit operations due to government orders.”
Council members are pressing the administration to get things moving. City Councilwoman Nanette Cook and Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin both pushed for Conway to get the $100,000 out as soon as possible, angling for an emergency meeting if necessary.
“It failed to get the money out quickly; meanwhile, we’ve got people losing their homes,” Naquin told Conway.
HUD added more flexibility to the relief funds. But it’s unclear that substantially more businesses will benefit. Under new guidance issued in early August, up to 30% of the award can be spent to benefit workers earning above low to moderate incomes, and businesses that received other federal help can now qualify. A key selling point pushed hard by Mayor-President Josh Guillory, Gothreaux and others was the program would target businesses who had nowhere else to go. HUD’s updated guidance also set a long deadline to spend the money, giving LCG three years to spend at least 80% of its award and six years to spend all of it.
From the jump, housing advocates argued the HUD funds were better used for housing, given added flexibility included in the block grant program, a creature of the CARES Act, intended to get money into renters’ hands and avoid widespread homelessness. A wave of evictions, feared for months by housing advocates in the wake of rising unemployment, has yet to materialize. And this week, the federal government issued a sweeping moratorium on evictions through the end of the year. How that order works in practice is still unclear, and advocates call it a stay of execution — not a solution — on rising housing instability nationally.
“We haven’t seen the evictions, but we have seen people call for assistance. People are really struggling to make ends meet,” says Rachal.
The gist: Deterioration of the facility and a lack of funding have shuttered a men’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army of Lafayette. Shelter operators are already squeezed for space. Housing advocates have seen housing needs rise quickly since coronavirus struck and are warning that conditions could get historically bad without massive relief.
Closing the shelter was in the works before the pandemic. But the loss nevertheless comes at a bad time. The 26 men staying there have been relocated to hotels, where most of the Lafayette area’s overflow of unsheltered people have been housed since the pandemic took hold.
“It became apparent that the shelter’s closure is necessary because the building’s condition does not meet the standards of a Salvation Army shelter,” Divisional Secretary Captain Mark Hunter told KLFY this week. Thursday was the shelter’s last day of operation. Salvation Army’s kitchen and counseling services will continue.
Lafayette has now lost 80 shelter beds since the beginning of the pandemic. A “low barrier” shelter operated by Catholic Charities of Acadiana was closed because its arrangement was ill-suited to house people and keep them safe from coronavirus. Shelter residents checked in for overnight stays and used floor space, which was routinely packed, says Leigh Rachal, CEO of Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.
“It’s a stress to the system for sure,” she says of the Salvation Army shelter’s closing. “Each additional person we’re trying to find shelter space for is one more bed we don’t have.”
Homelessness has risen 62% in Lafayette Parish since the onset of the pandemic. As incomes are slashed and job opportunities remain scarce, housing advocates have called the rise unprecedented and are warning that the need will worsen if more isn’t done to keep people who are nearing eviction in their homes. Some of 548 people currently in local shelters are without housing for the first time, pushed off the financial cliff when they lost their jobs during the lockdown of the national economy.
More than 1,300 people have called 211 asking for help with housing since the end of March. The trend in calls was briefly the most common call 211 agents received in the Lafayette area around the late April peak. Call volumes related to housing remain elevated above normal times but have declined since an early May spike.
A report suggests metro Lafayette will need tens of millions in rental assistance to forestall a wave of homelessness. The report by consulting firm Enterprise Community Partners, drawn from economic forecasts published by a UL economist, projects $54 million in aggregate need through the end of the year and $125 million through next July. The Enterprise report assumes high levels of sustained unemployment, roughly 41,000 people each month, through the middle of next year, a 20% drop in overall employment, which would lead the state.
Statewide the need tops $700 million in worst-case scenario projections. The staggering price tag has advocates calling for the state and municipalities to divert as much coronavirus relief funds as possible to housing assistance programs, which some communities have opted to do at varying levels. Lafayette is poised to use all $850,000 of an emergency allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on small business grants, a decision that drew fierce criticism from housing advocates. Louisiana has received millions in coronavirus HUD dollars, but advocates say it’s far from enough and are urging congressional lawmakers to lobby for more direct assistance to housing programs. Renters and advocates across the country watch nervously for evictions to resume. (Stays on evictions are scheduled to end June 5, but the governor’s office indicated it may be extended to June 15, according to NOLA.com.)
“It’s overwhelming,” Rachal says of the scale of need. “The only way we can [match the need] is with federal and state dollars.”
Lacking adequate healthcare, those who are unsheltered are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Local shelters are already at capacity, and more people are becoming homeless each day. It’s a public health problem, according to advocates.