When thousands of renters lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) quickly launched a rental assistance program to help struggling households pay their rent or electric bills.

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The Delaware Housing Assistance Program (DE HAP) has helped about 1,900 households with approximately $4.7 million in funding as of early November. Another 900 applications were under or pending review.

The program was recently recognized with a National Council of State Housing Agencies innovation award for special achievement in COVID-19 response. It was one of three awards captured by DSHA this year.

Like the rest of the country, Delaware has been hard hit by the pandemic. On March 13, Gov. John Carney called for the closure of all nonessential businesses to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. That action meant that restaurants, salons, and other many other businesses had to shut their doors, leaving employees without work.

DSHA launched DE HAP just two weeks later on March 26, becoming the first housing finance agency (HFA) to introduce an emergency rental assistance program, according to the organization, which has been contacted by at least a dozen other HFAs seeking guidance on implementing a similar program.

DE HAP was initially funded with $2 million from DSHA plus contributions from New Castle, Kent, and Sussex counties. However, it became apparent that the nearly $3 million initially raised would not be enough to meet the growing need. DSHA was then able to secure another $700,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh.

In addition, the state of Delaware has committed approximately $15 million from its federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) award to the effort, plus New Castle County is also making a CRF commitment, according to officials.

To be eligible for DE HAP, applicants must reside in Delaware and have a maximum household income at or below 80% of the area median income for the county in which they reside. The applicant must also provide documentation showing an impact on their employment or income beginning March 10 or later that is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were able to make adjustments from the first round to the second to help things flow more smoothly,” says Marlena Gibson, DSHA director of policy and planning. “We adjusted our documentation and materials.”

The agency has also revised the amount of aid that’s available. The program initially provided eligible households up to $1,500 in assistance, with payments made directly to the property owner or utility company. That was later raised to provide up to $5,000 in assistance and has recently been increased to $8,000.

For the HFAs with programs like DE HAP, there’s also a learning curve because the funding will likely be different than the ones the agencies typically work with, according to Gibson.

Adding to the challenges, DSHA team members, who have been collaborating with about 10 nonprofit agencies on the program, have primarily been working from home during the pandemic.

DSHA has also been working closely with the courts to have the program play a role in the remediation of eviction filings.

Heading into December, officials continue to monitor the CRF program as well as any new relief that may come. Established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the CRF provides funding for state and local governments to combat COVID-19, but the rules call for the funds to be utilized by Dec. 30, explains Jack Stucker, DSHA general counsel.

Officials are keeping a close eye on that looming deadline and any possible extensions. With demand expected to continue into 2021, DSHA is committed to exploring alternative funding, but they may be less flexible resources, says Stucker.

That means officials are working to process as many applications as they can this year while looking for new avenues to extend the program.