By PrincessSafiya Byers
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.
Michelle didn’t want to evict her struggling tenant in the middle of a pandemic.
The tenant in her West Allis property told her they’d applied for rental assistance through Community Advocates and provided proof of the application.
So Michelle, who did not want her last name to be used for fear of embarrassing her tenant, waited.
But after three months, she decided she had waited enough and that it was time to evict.
“My tenant applied in July, and we didn’t even know the tenant was approved until September. But we were still waiting for funds,” she said. “Both my tenant and I were reaching out and hadn’t heard anything back.”
Michelle said she’d thought that her tenant had applied for the wrong program or that the program didn’t exist anymore.
Before evicting, Michelle did some digging and reached out to News414, which was able to reach out to Community Advocates on her behalf and make sure that she received her tenant’s assistance to avoid eviction. (News414 is a community-based news texting service that addresses the issues, interests, perspectives and information needs of African American and Latinx residents living in central city Milwaukee neighborhoods.)
“I was sure that I would have to evict, but I wanted to try everything first,” she said. “This pandemic took everyone by storm and making sure that a program meant to help is helping felt like a shared responsibility.”
While Michelle was able to get her concerns handled before her tenant was evicted, this is not the case for everyone, so we spoke with Deb Heffner, the housing strategy director at Community Advocates.
According to Michelle, people are concerned that there is no more rental assistance and the lack of communication from rental assistance programs doesn’t help the issue. She also mentioned that the wait for assistance can be stressful for both landlords and tenants.
Heffner said the program is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.
She said Community Advocates has hired four new managers who are focused on rental assistance.
Heffner also is hopeful these new managers will help with the communication issues that some people are facing.
“What often happens with people calling in is that we end up in this game of phone tag or we just miss the call,” Heffner said. “But these new managers are already making our systems better.”
As far as the long wait for assistance, Heffner said, Community Advocates takes responsibility.
She said Community Advocates had distributed rental assistance funds faster than expected. This meant that it ran out of money while waiting for the next allocation of funds.
This resulted in people being approved but delays in getting them assistance.
“We’ve learned from that mistake and are now watching funds more closely so that we can contact the right people at the right times, and we won’t run out that way again,” Heffner said.
You can still get rental aid
Both Community Advocates and the Social Development Commission, or SDC, are still accepting and processing rental assistance applications.
Heffner said since June 2020, Community Advocates has distributed $35.9 million to 9,000 households.
She said there is an average of 4,000 applications being reviewed and processed by 15 staffers at any time, and about 400 new applications coming in per week.
George Hinton, the CEO of the Social Development Commission, said in 2020, the SDC distributed more than $16.7 million through the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, or WRAP, and the Milwaukee Rental Assistance Program, or MRAP. Since March 2021, it has disbursed over $14 million to more than 3,200 applicants through the Milwaukee Emergency Rent Assistance program.
Resources to consult if you’re worried about eviction
• Community Advocates rent helpline: 414-270-4646
• Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee: 414-727-5300
• Mediate Milwaukee: 414-939-8800
• Legal Action of Wisconsin: 855-947-2529
• Social Development Commission: 414-906-2700
• Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union: 414-410-9714
• Take Root Milwaukee for assistance with mortgage issues/foreclosure: 414-921-4149
We’re here for you, too
Need more information? Text “MKE” to 73224 to connect with a reporter.