Senate Passes Bill To Ease Bottlenecks Of HOPE Rental Assistance Program

By Jeff Moore
Carolina Journal

The N.C. Senate passed House Bill 110 on Wednesday, Sept. 8, which would modify rules to the HOPE rental assistance program.

The bill comes as state and local leaders struggle to quickly distribute the federal rental assistance aid they’re tasked with administering. The changes will let landlords apply for assistance on behalf of tenants, along with other changes designed to facilitate a more effective administration of the program.

In 2020, while the world succumbed to COVID-19 pandemic policies that shut down businesses, and thus froze many incomes, a federal agency — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — issued a moratorium on evictions. The move was massively disruptive for landlords and controversial in its issuance. In late August 2021, a court found to the CDC had no such authority under the U.S. Constitution and the moratorium was suspended. No matter: governors around the country, including Gov. Roy Cooper, had already issued executive orders applying the CDC eviction moratorium, extending landlords’ limbo for months.

The federal government included rental assistance allocations in relief funds to states. North Carolina, too, established the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions Program, or HOPE, to provide rent and utility assistance to low-income renters who were experiencing financial hardship due to pandemic policies, protecting them against utility disconnections and evictions.

The program rollout was hindered by bureaucratic limitations and the bottlenecks that come with them. N.C. Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, lamented the protracted pain caused by an all-too-familiar problem.

“It’s a tale as old as time with these emergency assistance programs: The federal government sends a pile of money to the state with a bunch of confusing rules, and administrators end up spending more time worried about the complications than finding creative solutions to overcome them,” Edwards said in a press release.

Edwards says H.B 110 is designed to clarify those solutions and expedite the delivery of sorely needed relief.

So far, the program has distributed nearly $350 million in rental assistance to almost 100,000 households, and, while that’s good enough to lead many other states in allocating this relief, that doesn’t mean it’s efficient in absolute terms. There remains nearly $500 million in the program, which continues until it runs out of money.

“The changes in this bill will improve the program,” Edwards said. “State and local leaders should implement them quickly and avoid the temptation to find excuses for why it can’t be done.”

Republicans in the General Assembly charge that Cooper neglected to approve some options when the program was created. According to the bill text, the rental assistance application is seven pages long and requires applicants to submit a number of documents, including their leases. Because landlords may be better positioned, and far more incentivized, to locate and organize some of the required documents, the bill allows them to take the lead in the application process. However, tenants would still need to participate in applying to the HOPE Program.

Other changes ordered in the legislation weren’t implemented originally, though they are permissible under federal rules. This includes requiring the HOPE program to apply to families living in hotels/motels; including late fees in rent owed to landlords; and accepting applications for utility payments only.

With the era of eviction moratoriums officially ending, and with some landlords unable to make mortgage payments without rental income, legislators believe the proposed changes will make evictions less likely and improve program uptake.

The call to provide a soft landing from the fall of the moratorium’s end is echoed on the federal level, too. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged local and state governments Wednesday to expedite emergency rental assistance funds to renters and landlords in need, warning of the lasting negative impact of evictions. The flip side, not given as much public credence from the Biden administration, but exponentially more consequential from an economic perspective, is the progressive domino effect of landlords prohibited from collecting rents for indefinite periods of time.

Senate votes, 27-15, to limit governor’s emergency powers

By Mitch Kokai, Carolina Journal

The state Senate has voted again, 27-15, to place new limits on the governor’s emergency powers. The Senate’s endorsement of the measure returns the issue to the state House.

The political parties split on House Bill 264, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.

Under the latest version of the bill, the governor would need to consult other elected officials to enact emergency measures that last longer than a week.

“An executive order that is entered at the time of an emergency would not be beyond seven days — unless a majority of the Council of State … vote in concurrence to have that executive order extend for up to 45 days,” said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, on the Senate floor. The Council of State is a 10-member body featuring every statewide elected executive branch official, including the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.

Even the Council of State’s concurrence would have limits. “In those instances, those executive orders would extend for only 45 days unless the General Assembly extended that further,” Britt added.

Britt explained the need to place a time limit on the governor’s executive orders. “We’ve been in this pandemic for a long time,” he said. “We want our leader in this state to be empowered by the Emergency Management Act, as he has been … to be able to act in instances of an emergency, especially when we’re talking about natural disasters.”

The Emergency Management Act was not designed for a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic “that has extended for almost 18 months,” Britt said.

“Our country is founded — and our state is founded — on the belief that we don’t need to have just one individual making all the decisions without the collaboration of others,” he said.

Emergencies lasting longer than a month and a half will require input from “General Assembly members, who represent folks from all over, all regions, all sectors in this state so we can have more input from more people than just one individual.”

Britt reminded colleagues that a pending lawsuit addresses the issue of whether the current Emergency Management Act violates the state constitution. Critics contend the EMA delegates too much legislative authority to the governor.

“This seeks to fix that issue, while still allowing our executive to have the power he needs to make the decision he needs to make during an emergency, but also ensures that everyone’s voice is heard in collaboration going forward.”

H.B. 264 resembled Senate Bill 346, which cleared the Senate in April. “In times of emergencies, there needs to be quick action, and the General Assembly doesn’t have time to meet and change policy. That’s why decades ago the legislature delegated some power to the governor,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, in a news release. “However, it’s clear that after 18 months of unilateral decision-making, that authority needs additional checks and balances.”

No Democrat spoke during the Senate’s floor debate.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed previous efforts to scale back his emergency powers. Unless some legislative Democrats are willing to join Republicans in supporting H.B. 264, the latest measure could face the same fate.