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Iowa ends rent and utility assistance program

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Over the last 16 months, 17,000 Iowans have received $170 million in rent and utility assistance. But that assistance program stops taking new applicants at the end of August as the state shifts funding priorities to Iowans experiencing homelessness.

While money remains available, the state shifts funding priority from rent assistance to rehousing homeless Iowans. Populous counties can still access federal assistance for rent and utilities, but small and rural entities won’t have access.

A federally funded program that kept Iowans housed with their lights on ends after August.

The Iowa Finance Authority’s Rent and Utility Assistance Program gave more than $170 million – including Gov. Kim Reynolds' $36 million allocation of CARES Act funds – to an estimated 17,000 Iowans. This assistance could be used for utilities, rent and back rent. The program had higher income thresholds meaning it was open to many more Iowans than comparable rent assistance programs.

The Iowa program was one of many funded under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The IRUAP was part of the first $25 billion appropriation under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. While a second run of $21.55 billion is available under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Iowa is changing course to fund a program started this year to help Iowans experiencing homelessness with a rapid rehousing program.

Ashley Jared, the director of communications for Iowa Finance Authority, told IPR News switching priorities was a “tough” decision but the program was designed as a short-term emergency relief program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a state, we've taken the position that we are using this opportunity between the two programs to pivot it to a more long-term approach to help those that are most vulnerable, as well as to look at how we can get them back on their feet and in connection with the jobs and resources to become long term and stable housing situation,” Jared said.

The Johnson County Director of Social Services Lynette Jacoby said homelessness was an important problem for the state to take on, though the challenge will be to find programs that can fill that gap left in rent and utility assistance.

“We know though at the local level that there isn’t funding,” she said. “We can’t fill the gap of $350,000 of rental assistance a month.”

Jacoby said the program's $170 million impact was not just for residents but also landlords who would have lost income from emptied units or the eviction process. In Johnson County alone, $6.1 million was dispersed over the 16 months. During that period, an average of 180 of the county’s households received assistance in a month.

While counties and cities with populations larger than 200,000 can still apply for additional Emergency Rental Assistance Program money, smaller entities won’t make the cut. Iowa Legal Aid inquired with the ERA questioning what could qualify as a local entity: could multiple localities in, say, rural Iowa join together to meet the minimum population requirement and access that funding? But the program responded saying that it would not be possible.

Alex Kornya is general counsel at Iowa Legal Aid, which among other things provides eviction prevention services to low-income Iowans. He called the interpretation disappointing.

“At this point, that interpretation makes it very difficult to try this we hoped would make this funding an option for us,” he said.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa