By Matt Martinez
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org
Although the Milwaukee County Eviction Prevention Program is helping to keep a roof over the heads of hundreds of Milwaukeeans, it’s running out of money.
Using funds from the federal CARES Act, Milwaukee County has distributed $9 million to two agencies: Community Advocates and Hope House of Milwaukee.
In total, the program has help to prevent 1,730 potential evictions so far, according to James Mathy, housing administrator of Milwaukee County.
Deb Heffner, housing strategy director with Community Advocates’ Public Policy Institute, said Community Advocates is on pace to spend its $6.5 million in CARES funding by the end of November.
Hope House received $2.5 million in CARES Act funding from the county. Executive Director Wendy Weckler said those funds should last until mid-December.
Struggling tenants already face steep challenges because the federal eviction moratorium, which has prevented landlords from issuing evictions during COVID-19, ends on Jan. 1.
Community Advocates and Hope House have used CARES funding for direct rental assistance. Community Advocates helps tenants pay rental arrearages, or money that the tenant owes the landlord from missed payments.
“We have an eviction moratorium, not a rent freeze,” Heffner said.
That’s where Hope House, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness, comes in.
Weckler said her organization seeks to help people get ahead on paying their bills and to permanently break the cycle of homelessness.
Weckler said Hope House has helped over 750 people, including some who went through Community Advocates.
Heffner said the money is going to people who have a COVID-based loss of income. But for some recipients, the problems didn’t start with the pandemic.
“A lot of people who need this assistance were already suffering or in jeopardy,” Heffner said.
Even so, the pandemic has made things worse. Normally, Heffner said, Community Advocates pays $800 to $1,000 on average for rental assistance. Since the pandemic began, that figure has ballooned to $3,000 to $5,000.
Mathy said that the money was distributed with racial equity in mind. People of color are disproportionately affected by the threat of eviction. Some 81% of households served on the Community Advocates contract are Black, Mathy said.
Mathy said the pandemic has also made it more difficult for shelters to house people due to difficulties with social distancing.
“Without this CARES Act funding … we would have seen a dramatic spike in homelessness, with frankly not a lot of places for individuals to go at the moment,” Mathy said.
Another round of federal funding is likely what will be needed to maintain the program’s scope. As of right now, it’s not guaranteed. The money that’s already been disbursed by the CARES Act can’t be used after the end of the year, either.
Heffner said if her organization is unsuccessful in getting more federal dollars, it will appeal to local and private donors.
Community Advocates also has partnered with other organizations to create the Rental Housing Resource Center, which provides tenants with connections for rental assistance, legal services and mediation services in one place.
The partners for the project include the Apartment Owners Association of Southeast Wisconsin, City of Milwaukee, IMPACT, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Mediate Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.
Heffner said that Community Advocates is planning to open a physical space for the Rental Housing Resource Center early next year.
As far as House Hope is concerned, Weckler said if more federal money isn’t allocated, her organization will maintain a smaller prevention program.