Indy COVID-19 rental assistance program under pressure

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Thousands of people in Indianapolis are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. The city has millions in funding to help those struggling, but the pandemic rental assistance program is overwhelmed. 

At last check there were 17,000 renters signed up for assistance online. The city is struggling to get applications processed, while renters and landlords sit and wait.  

Kevin Robinson is a commercial painter and the pandemic shut down most of his work last fall. He has been out of work longer than expected and fallen behind on his rent. Late last fall he applied for rental assistance through the IndyRent Assistance Portal, and has not heard a thing from the city.  

“I just can’t get anything, you know anybody to return any of my messages or take any of my calls or anything,” said Robinson. “I have tried every avenue I can.” 

Robinson is almost able to makes ends meet with unemployment benefits, at least right now. Last fall his landlord did file an eviction notice, however, the emergency health order from the city, state and federal government has bought him some time. Robinson says his landlord is patient and willing to work with him.

“I have never done anything like this, you know right now because of the pandemic and everything it has been really hard for me to you know make all my bills and everything you know, trying to get going, starting over without having to move,” said Robinson. 

The city’s rent assistance program is funded with federal COVID-19 relief money. Unlike past COVID-related rental assistance programs the landlord is not required to participate. The city can send payments directly to tenants. Jeff Bennett the Indianapolis Deputy Mayor of Community Development says the city started taking names from the waiting list earlier this week.

“We have in excess of $33 million right now that brings stability to tenants, which then brings financial stability to those landlords that are providing the housing,” said Bennett.  

Last year the city had more than 40,000 people sign up for rental assistance. The need may be slowing down a little, but in the past four months close to 17,000 people have signed up. The program is open to those that received assistance last year.  

“But to start I think it is safe to say that we have a program the size and scope of the same one we rolled out last year, if someone is three months behind, we can catch them up or if someone just needs a month then we can still assist,” said Bennett.

For Robinson, he has been in his house for six years and would like to stay a little longer. He says taking assistance would not be his first option, but at this point it’s his only option. 

“I have always been able to stand on my own two feet, but this caught me off guard big time,” said Robinson. 

The city was able to help almost 16,000 renters last year, and they are hoping to do the same this year. Plus, with additional money coming from the American Rescue Plan that was just passed by Congress, the city may be able to extend the rental assistance program into the summer.