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3News Investigates: Ohio may forfeit $100 million in unused federal COVID-19 funds

Rental assistance program dogged by delays, poor messaging may hurt renters and landlords, prompt eviction tsunami.

CLEVELAND — Neal Robinson is packing his things.

And he’s not alone.

Robinson is among nearly 250,000 other Ohioans facing evictions in the wake of the pandemic – all despite the state receiving over $560 million in federal funds earmarked especially for rental assistance.

Compounding the issue, a 3News Investigates review has found Ohio could forfeit over $100 million the state has yet to distribute to renters and landlords throughout the state.

Robinson’s eviction from his apartment came after a job loss, a Covid-19 case, and a neurological disorder that still impacts his day to day life.

“I was getting paid every week but like I said, as much as I was making, I was giving out. And I just got behind. And could never catch up,” Robinson said.

Robinson, who is single, applied to assistance, but is now living temporarily with friends.

“I know I’m not the only one in this position…but you know,” he said. “People should keep their word.”

The rental assistance funds came via Congress, one of three spending packages designed to help Americans during the pandemic.

Ohio received the 9th highest total distribution in the U.S. while its housing costs remains among the nation’s lowest.

But instead of developing an online platform for residents to apply for assistance, Ohio passed that responsibility to local community action agencies.

Some agencies, like in Summit County, have spent every dollar received from the state. Others, like Stark County, have struggled.

And others, like CHN Housing, which handled distribution for Cuyahoga County, said they’ve also spent all the state money received.

However, the agency declined to discuss the rental assistance program when contacted by 3News Investigates.

Ohio ranked 43rd among U.S. states by spending just 18 percent of its federal covid assistance dollars. Another study gave Ohio a zero-star rating, the lowest possible. for its rental assistance program.

In a 10-page Improvement Plan provided to federal officials, the state pledged to improve its efforts by the Feb. 28 deadline.

Todd Walker, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development which oversaw and distributed the funds, said those efforts have paid off.

He said distribution has greatly accelerated since the November report.

However, he conceded that the state stands to return $104 million if it cannot reallocate those remaining dollars to counties.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro told 3News Investigates that several factors have contributed to the delays, including the lack of a statewide application system.

“To still have people in need that you could spend on and you’re not leveraging dollars to help them, does not seem good practice to me,” Shapiro said.

The federal funding requires renters to be directly impacted by Covid-19, such as through a job loss. The process is mired with red tape, staffing issues and poor messaging, advocate said.

Since the early days of the pandemic, housing advocates warned of a tsunami of evictions. They canvassed neighborhoods as a moratorium was nearing its end.

In addition, courts like the Cleveland Housing Court, have required renters be assigned attorneys with the Legal Aid Society.

And while eviction cases have remained flat, advocates worry it may not last if Ohio fails to connect its funds to those in need.

Hazel Remesch, a Legal Aid Society of Cleveland staff attorney, said it’s vital that all available funds are distributed to those in need.

“It would be a tremendous loss to the community if we lose that funding,” she said. “It is a critical piece to ensure we continue to move out of the pandemic and we continue to address poverty issues in our area.

“If you remove rental assistance from the equation, that tsunami is likely going to come.”

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