Huge renter turnout for DOC workshop on fed rental assistance
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Renters who are eligible for the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) will not ‘handle’ the funds, if their applications are approved, but instead the money goes directly to the landlords, according to the Department of Commerce (DOC) presentation at last Friday’s workshop for tenants. The event held at the Malaeimi Stake Center hall of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was packed.
The ERAP, which is part of the federal law providing assistance for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, also provides financial help to cover utility bills — power and electric — for tenants. And the more than 200 people who attended the tenant workshop were also told that this financial help goes directly to the American Samoa Power Authority.
Because of the huge turn out, DOC — the ASG administering agency for this new federal program — was forced to hold a second-unscheduled tenant workshop that same day, starting at 12noon, after the first session at 10a.m.
The US Treasury Department awarded American Samoa a total of $17.9 million under the ERAP, which can provide residential rent and utility assistance to eligible individuals and families who have been impacted directly or indirectly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
DoH official Lina Petaia, gave one of the presentations during the DOC tenant workshop where those in attendance were informed of the federal law and requirements for the program. She also explained federal regulations for the program with which DOC must abide, as set by federal law.
“Not all renters are eligible” under the program, she said and shared some of the requirements for eligibility — such as proof of hardship due to COVID-19.
Additionally, there is a ceiling limitation of the income eligibility, which is based on the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) market-rate, which DOC has adopted. For example, eligible household income for one-person is $25,650 while at the high end, a household of 8 people would have eligible income capped at $48,350.
DOC’s website — https://www.doc.as.gov — has a link for local ERAP information, including requirements and household income.
Details of documents needed to apply were clearly explained during the workshop — such as proof of income including anyone who lives in the household that works, the proof of rental amount currently paid , for which two receipts are needed.
Tenants with no receipts, can provide a notarized letter, signed by the tenant and landlord, saying how much the renter pays monthly. Also required is the renter’s name, address, phone and email address of the landlord.
Petaia said that during a landlord seminar earlier in the week, they were informed that it’s important that their name and address be provided to tenants. She stressed that it’s very important to have the email not only for the tenant — but also the landlord. And DOC can assist the tenant with setting up an email if the tenant doesn’t have an e-mail address.
Attendees were informed that the ERAP covers current and future rental payments but not previous or past rents.
To apply, the DOC online application portal opens Nov. 1st and DOC staff will also be available to help renters fill out the application. There will also be intake-centers available that week to help applicants.
Workshop attendees were told that there is another federal program, similar to the ERAP, and that other program is administered by Human and Social Service. And if a household is currently receiving help from that DHSS administered program — the ESG — the tenant is not eligible for the ERAP as well.
DOC went through details on what’s on the application and explained to the audience that the household cannot submit the tenant application, without the landlord submitting his/ her application.
“So it’s important for the tenant to contact the landlord and the application between the landlord and tenant is linked through emails. And that is why it’s important that the tenant application includes information on the landlord’s email address,” Petaia emphasized during the workshop — at least three times — to ensure that everyone understands this important detail for the application process — that an “email” works as the link between the tenant and the landlord applications.
After the application is submitted, DOC does its work to review the application. Upon completion of the review, DOC staff will conduct site inspection of the renter’s place. After the site inspection the tenant will receive a letter on whether the application is approved.
Petaia emphasized the importance of the site inspection of the renter’s place, to make sure that, there is water and electricity, the home is not overcrowded and occupants are living in safe conditions.
When the application is approved, payment for the rental covers “three-months”, said Petaia, who noted that DOC hopes that by December the rental payments will go out to the landlord.
And the payment in December, is “advanced to cover three months — December , January and February of 2022,” she said, and reiterated that payments will be direct-deposit to the landlord’s bank account or a paper check issued to the landlord. And it’s up to the landlord to indicate his/her preference to receive the payment.
After three-months, if the renter still needs financial assistance, the renter contacts his/ her case worker and another inspection is carried out, as well as an update on the paperwork. A new letter will be sent out if approved for another three-months.
According to the DOC presentation, the rental assistance can cover up to 12-months. Again, the rental assistant is for current and future rent payments, not outstanding past rents.
Regarding utility bills, the payment goes directly to the American Samoa Power Authority and DOC has already worked with ASPA on this issue.
“Most of the rentals have a debit meter, so the credit-token for the debit meter, is given to ASPA for the rental unit,” she said. And the audience was told that if there is an overage of the credit, the tenant cannot go and cash out the overage at ASPA. That prompted laughter from the audience.
Because of time constraints and with the un-scheduled second workshop on Friday, there were limited numbers of questions taken from the audience. One of the questions deals with the amount that the ERAP can pay.
DOC explained that the amount of the payment is based on the HUD market-rate. One example cited is that if rent is $1,000 a month and the HUD market-rate shows $500, then the rental assistance payment is only $500.
DOC has already held other tenant and landlord workshops throughout last week — including for tenants on the Eastern District — and also a workshop last Saturday for tenants.
DOC plans to make additional announcements pertaining to the ERAP in the coming days.