In the race to distribute millions of dollars in rent assistance to thousands of tenants, King County is lagging behind its neighbors.
The state’s most populous county says it has distributed $6.5 million, or 4.5%, of $145 million in available federal funding to help struggling renters and landlords.
Pierce County has spent about 59% of $53.4 million in federal and state money, and Snohomish County has spent about 47% of $57.8 million, according to county spokespeople.
King County says the process of building a new data system to manage the federal funds has slowed the distribution of money, along with new federal requirements for verifying tenant and landlord information.
But the delay has left landlords and tenants anxious about when help will arrive.
Rent assistance — paid mostly to landlords on behalf of tenants who are behind on their rent — is a cornerstone of the government response to pandemic-driven housing instability. With millions of tenants across the country behind on rent, the federal government this year directed billions of dollars to local and state governments for payments to help tenants catch up. But much of that money has not yet made it to renters or landlords.
About 9,400 tenants and 1,500 landlords (some representing multiple apartment buildings) have applied to King County for help.
So far, the county has funded assistance for about 900 tenants with the latest round of money, said Mark Ellerbrook, a division director at the county’s Department of Community and Human Services. The county plans to distribute an additional $4 million this week.
An estimated 101,000 renters in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area are behind on rent, according to recent survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Renters of color, particularly Black renters, are more likely to report being behind on payments, making them especially vulnerable to future eviction.
Waiting for rent assistance has been “incredibly stressful,” said Adam, a renter in Ballard who lost work at a startup early in the pandemic and fell behind on rent. (He asked not to be fully identified because he’s still looking for work.)
As his landlord repeatedly asked for payments, “it was difficult to focus on doing anything,” he said.
After applying for help in May, “it took the landlord calling and pleading to United Way” to eventually get approved, he said. In early July, he received notice that King County would pay $21,400 to cover back rent and his next three months, but Adam said as of this week his landlord still has not received the funds from the county.
“I don’t know how they didn’t manage to be more prepared,” he said.
As delays stretch on, some landlords or property managers have now sought to remove their applications for county assistance. Opting out releases them from county rules meant to offer tenants stability.
Once landlords have applied for the King County program, they cannot raise rent or evict, except in limited circumstances, until the end of this year. So far, five landlords or property management companies representing 123 rental properties have removed their applications, according to King County.
“You’re stuck. You’ve agreed to this contract, so you can’t administer something like a rent increase, but you’re also not receiving the funding that you should be to offset that,” said Alison Dean, president at HNN Communities, which manages about 7,500 units across Washington, mostly of affordable rental housing.
The company has received about $12 million in assistance from Snohomish County but is still waiting for funds in King County, she said.
Dean said HNN will consider withdrawing their application if money doesn’t flow in coming weeks, though “that’s not our goal.”
To explain the delay in distributing funds, King County officials have pointed to ongoing construction of a data system to manage thousands of applications from tenants and landlords. Federal rules also require more documentation than was necessary in an earlier round of funding. And King County is managing a far larger amount of money than other counties.
Last year, King County used a more rudimentary system to dole out about $38 million in rent assistance.
“I don’t think any one thing went wrong. We’re building a very complicated data system that in normal circumstances would be done in six to nine months,” Ellerbrook said.
But the county also opted for a different approach than some other local governments.
King County contracted with an outside company, GrantCare, for about $501,400 to build the new data and tracking system. The county says it has so far paid the company about $200,500.
Initial contract documents contemplated that rent assistance money would start to flow by May. The county later estimated mid-July, then said it started making payments in late July.
King County has now started testing and using the database for some limited uses and plans to begin to “ramp up” its use in coming weeks, Ellerbrook said.
GrantCare declined to answer questions about specific causes of the delay. CEO Shane Lucas said, “everyone is committed to disbursing these funds to eligible landlords and tenants as fast as possible.”
Other local governments either did not rely on outside contractors to build new systems or pivoted when those projects took longer than expected.
Pierce County tracks its funds in-house. Snohomish County has relied largely on the Volunteers of America, which has an internal database.
“We have considered a new system, but we also heard from various entities around about the challenges they encountered,” said Jackie Anderson, division manager of the Snohomish County Human Services Department.
The city of Seattle initially contracted with GrantCare to build a software system for its rent assistance program. That system was slated to launch in June. But after delays, the city shifted to “interim systems” such as spreadsheets and United Way’s existing database, said Stephanie Velasco, spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Housing.
Seattle now expects its GrantCare system to launch next week, Velasco said. The city has paid the company about $157,900 so far, of a total $451,300 contract.
Even once more money starts flowing from King County, the need will far outstrip the funds.
King County estimates that at least 60,000 households with low incomes need assistance. With current funds, Ellerbrook said the county expects to have enough money to help about 35,000.