Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance program closes applications

Program closure threatens families facing ongoing housing insecurity

· Feb 7, 2023 Tweet

Joey Reuteman/The Badger Herald

The Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance program, which was created in 2021 using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help Wisconsin residents struggling to pay utility bills or rent, stopped accepting new applications Jan. 31.

Wisconsin Department of Administration spokesperson Tatyana Warrick said WERA has received over $600 million dollars from the federal government since 2021 for rental assistance, assisting 30,000 households statewide.

The people who will be most affected by the program’s end are people who are experiencing unemployment or underemployment and have been at risk of losing their homes since Mar. 13, 2020, Warrick said.

Warrick said those currently enrolled in WERA will still receive funding until their term is up. Since WERA is a timed system, participants receive up to 18 months of assistance, but it is all on a case-by-case basis. Once debts are paid for renters, the program provides assistance for another three months, according to their website.

WERA has been able to survive longer than its equivalents in neighboring states like Michigan and Minnesota, Warrick said.

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University of Wisconsin students likely won’t feel the effects of the program’s end because rental assistance in Madison is distributed by the Tenant Resource Center and other Madison-based programs. These programs are not funded through WERA and receive money through different sources. This is because they are a part of entitlement communities, Warrick said.

There are 21 entitlement communities in Wisconsin — including Madison and Dane County — who have their own local programs which handle funding for housing assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

Warrick said WERA and other similar programs are short-term assistance programs, and the DOA will continue to work with tribal and local governments to increase affordable housing.

Though WERA was the only program created in 2021 using ARPA funds, other programs still exist in Wisconsin, Warrick said. 

UW professor of urban planning Kurt Paulsen said these programs may not be enough. Wisconsin will likely see an increase in evictions and a possible increase in homelessness following the termination of the program.

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WERA wasn’t just an affordable housing solution but a way to stop the spread of COVID-19, Paulsen said.

“The idea is, you’re not wanting lots of people to be moving, and that’s why there was for a while an eviction moratorium as well,” Paulsen said.

But, other affordable housing programs exist in the United States that use federal funding. Section 8 housing has existed since 1937, yet it is not able to assist households on the scale of emergency funding according to Paulsen.

The Section 8 voucher program is designed for low-income families to receive adequate housing through rental assistance. Eligible applicants must make less than 30% of the median income of the surrounding area, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

Emergency funding is more effective than programs like Section 8 because all eligible applicants receive resources from the program due to it being funded at such a high level, Paulsen said. Section 8 housing, on the other hand, only gives out funds to about 20% of eligible applicants.

Paulsen said the emergency programs helped a lot of people because housing was already unaffordable for many, even before the pandemic.

Paulsen said construction costs have risen 35%, which drives prices up for rent as well.

“When the cost of something new goes up, the cost of existing stuff also goes up,” Paulsen said.

Preventing evictions can be extremely cheap for the government, Paulsen said. Many people are evicted for less than $500 in late fees, so simply providing extra funds is an efficient solution.

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Evictions cost more to the economy than the government rental assistance programs, Paulsen said. Section 8 housing can also be denied by the landlord, so Section 8 cannot be used by everyone in every situation.

Other programs do exist for rental assistance after WERA funding ends, such as the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance program, the Veteran Housing and Recovery program and the Recovery Voucher Grant Program, which can lessen the burden of rising housing costs.

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