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City Council puts $300K in eviction prevention

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Though New Mexico landlords remain temporarily unable to evict tenants who demonstrate in court proceedings that they cannot afford to pay their rent, Albuquerque officials are hoping to stop at least some cases from reaching that point.

The Albuquerque City Council on Monday approved using $300,000 of the city’s federal coronavirus relief money for eviction prevention assistance programs run through the city’s Health and Social Services Centers.

But even with every councilor voting for the allocation, some questioned whether the aid was sufficient.

“Is this even going to go far enough? … I’m very supportive of it, but just concerned about that,” Councilor Isaac Benton asked before the vote.

Klarissa Peña, who sponsored the proposal, said Thursday she intends to speak with some council colleagues about co-sponsoring a future resolution for more money.

She said the $300,000 figure was based on her office’s conversations with city administrators and that she was not sure if she had enough council support to pass even that amount.

“When everyone was talking (favorably) about it that night, I said, ‘I should’ve asked for more,’ ” she said.

The $300,000 should help at least 60 households, according to Gilbert Ramirez, the city’s deputy director for behavioral health and wellness programs. The city intends to offer qualifying households up to $5,000 to help with rent, utility bills or both. The city disburses the money directly to the landlords and utility companies, not individual residents.

Albuquerque has active programs to help with rental assistance, getting $121,000 per year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for such services. It has also requested another $380,000 in HUD funds this year, Ramirez said.

Given the need during the pandemic, the city has since March also supplemented federal dollars with $50,000 from the One Albuquerque Fund foundation and about $29,000 in private donations.

Since March 1, the city’s program has provided rental and/or utility assistance to 344 households, Ramirez said. That is compared with 153 for the same timeframe in 2019.

But HUD has strict qualifications about who the city can assist with its funding. Ramirez said the supplemental money – including the $300,000 approved by council – has fewer restrictions, allowing, for example, help for undocumented immigrants and refugees.

The new money also allows for a higher level of help, as existing programs have maximum distributions of $500 and $1,000.

Offering up to $5,000 with the new money will help those who have accumulated months of debt during the pandemic, Ramirez said.

“I see it as a Band-Aid, not the larger solution, but it’s a major one to make sure people don’t (become) homeless,” he said.

The New Mexico Supreme Court issued a stay on evictions early in the COVID-19 pandemic for tenants who attend hearings and provide evidence that they cannot pay, and it remains in effect. However, it does not cancel tenants’ rent, and Ramirez said city staff are hearing about landlords not renewing leases for those who owe back rent, which has the same practical effect of lost housing.

Those interested in applying for the funds, can call 311 to learn more.

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