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Yakima County on track to meet spending deadline after returning $1.1 million in rental assistance | Local

Yakima County officials say they have addressed issues that led to the loss of $1.1 million in federal rental assistance funds last year and expected to meet the latest federal deadline.

Yakima County was the only county in Washington that had to return rental assistance funds to the U.S. Treasury Department in 2021 because of processing delays, according to recent reporting by Crosscut.

The county set up a new online rental assistance portal which has addressed the issues, said Esther Magasis, director of the Yakima County Human Services Department. The latest deadline for distributing funds before potential additional reallocation was Thursday.

Magasis said Tuesday that the county was on track to meet that spending deadline, if it hadn’t already surpassed it, though she said final distribution totals would not be available until July.

“I’m not worried about us missing out,” she said.

She said funds have been going out more quickly since the online portal went live in March.

The county distributed about $12.6 million to 2,987 households between September 2020 and January 2022, according to information available on the county’s rental assistance data page. That data includes distribution of funds from the first and second rounds of rental assistance from federal and state resources.

In the four months since the online portal went live, the county has distributed $3.7 million to 736 households.

“I would take this data to mean that the portal has been working well and is being utilized consistently by the community,” Magasis said.

$1.1 million loss

Magasis said the county’s $1.1 million loss stemmed from a lack of infrastructure to help disburse the large amounts of emergency assistance.

“Our community does not have one single entity which could provide the geographic coverage, staffing and cash necessary to operate a rental assistance program on its own,” she said.

Yakima County didn’t have a single provider that could distribute funds to the community, especially because the funds were awarded on a reimbursement basis, she said. No single group, not even the county, had that much cash on hand, she said.

Instead, the county built a system that included multiple providers: the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic Action Center, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, Catholic Charities, the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Washington and the Northwest Communities Education Center.

“For this program, if we wanted to move the money, we had to do it in bite-sized pieces,” she said.

Magasis said the reimbursement process is standard for Yakima County and the state Department of Commerce for other contracts and programs: Community partners or agencies pay the assistance payments up front and send the county an invoice; the county pays that invoice and sends another invoice to the state before being reimbursed, she said.

Magasis said the county was balancing different spending deadlines for different funding sources and working to double-check applications and remove duplicates across different sites.

The county created a program to flag applications with any tenant name or address that was the same as a previous submission. Magasis said she would look at the applications and follow up with case managers to find out if it was a duplicate and then check payment records to see how many months of assistance the applicant had received. If it was less than the 15-month maximum, they would be approved for payment up until that maximum, she said.

She said the process created a bottleneck, and she found many duplicates every week, indicating that the check was necessary to keep the program compliant with guidelines.

“That’s not something we did to be extra punitive or anything else,” Magasis said. “It’s something we did because it filled the basic requirement of ensuring that we were administering the funds correctly.”

Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney agreed on that point.

“One of the significant issues that was clear is that there was, between partners, no way for them to share information,” McKinney said. “There was a very large opportunity as you can imagine for not just fraud, but inadvertent duplication.”

McKinney said the process was used to prevent fraud and severe duplication of services by agency partners who also had limited time and staffing.

Magasis said the fraud prevention measures brought the county into alignment with the requirements spelled out in Congress’ Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which gave guidelines for the rental assistance programs and set the 15-month assistance limit, and were not restrictive beyond what was required.

She said the county did add an affidavit for applicants to sign, saying they had not received funds beyond the limit of what was allowed and they were not committing fraud in their application. She said this step didn’t add substantial time to the process: It was a single-page document the applicant would read and sign, Magasis said.

“The hope was just that it was a small measure to ensure that if somebody was going to intentionally try to commit fraud within the system, having that affidavit that they signed might discourage them from doing so,” she said. “And if somebody was found to have applied in multiple places, if the county ever did want to take action or if any of the agencies wanted to reach out and say, ‘We’ve discovered that you had applied fraudulently,’ we had some kind of document in place that they signed that attested that, ‘Yes, I knew that I was not supposed to be doing this, and I promised that I was not doing this.’”

Online portal

Magasis said the process of moving the program to a central online site started in October 2021, when the Washington State Department of Commerce recommended LiveStories after using the company for state-level rental assistance components.

“I’d been working on transitioning to an online system and building it and creating relationships with the company that runs it since November last year,” Magasis said. “I spent a long time trying to get that system built and published.”

The county was in communication with LiveStories by November, and the system design took another month, according to Magasis. She then reached out to local partners and the Board of County Commissioners to pitch the idea.

Once she had approval from the commissioners to move forward, the next several months were spent formulating a contract, compiling information for the site and training local partners and LiveStories staff.

“A five-month lead time might sound like we were dragging our feet, but we were pushing as hard as we could for months to get this going, running multiple phases concurrently in order to be able to hit the ground running and launch the system the moment a contract was in place,” she said.

Magasis said the online portal has allowed the county to distribute funds much more quickly. There is also a team of 15-20 people at LiveStories helping out with what Magasis had previously been doing herself, she said.

“The program is significantly improved, and we haven’t been experiencing any issues with moving funds since it went live,” she said.

Impact on community

Attorney Erika Rutter with Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services said the loss of funds in the county was a major disappointment. She works as the right-to-counsel attorney, representing low-income tenants who have an unlawful detainer, also known as an eviction filed in court.

“I was incredibly disappointed that we lost those funds,” Rutter said. “I had so many clients who desperately needed it.”

For one client, delays in the rental assistance system meant losing housing, Rutter said.

“Instead of having a writ of restitution, which is an eviction order, issued, she just decided to vacate her trailer and she’s now homeless,” Rutter said.

Rutter said an earlier implementation of the online program could have prevented that client, and others, from losing housing.

The online program streamlined the process, she said, allowing more opportunities for problem solving, collaboration and quick disbursement of funds. Rutter said she had previous clients who waited three months for rental assistance, but funds can now be distributed in one to two weeks.

“It’s been a really good change,” she said.

Rutter said there is still a huge need for rental assistance in the community, especially as it gets further from the start of the pandemic and households near the 15-month limit for assistance. That limit is tied to the funding, Magasis said.

Rutter encouraged the county to continue its contract with LiveStories and expand eligibility where it can.

“I have several clients that still desperately need rental assistance,” she said.

Rick Glenn, a Yakima landlord and president of the Yakima Valley Landlords Association, said the loss of the $1.1 million wasn’t due to a lack of need, but because there was a backlog in the process. He used the rental assistance program to secure rent for some tenants who fell behind.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there were places where it could very well have gone, but at the same, time, I understand it,” he said.

Glenn said he has had issues navigating the online portal — getting locked out after being mistakenly flagged for fraudulent activity and being unable to submit applications — but has since gotten helpful feedback from the site supervisors.

Magasis said the county worked hard to get rental assistance funds to households.

“I’m not of the opinion that we’re glad we don’t have that 1.1 million,” Magasis said. “Obviously, we’ve fought hard to get every penny we can. We’ve really overextended ourselves to try and do everything we can to capture these dollars and distribute them.”

McKinney said she supports the use of technology to improve the process.

“That’s exactly what we did in this case,” she said. “I think that we should take pride in the fact that not only did the county take on the challenge, but we successfully gave out several million dollars for this program.”

Future spending

The latest federal spending deadline passed Thursday. The county had to distribute the entirety of the federal funds it had received from the U.S. Treasury so far as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The Treasury provided 40% of the total allotment up front, which were the only funds guaranteed to the county. Any funds left unspent by the deadline could be subject to reallocation, according to guidance from the Treasury.

“If we don’t spend that out, then we can’t request the rest, and they might do another reallocation of our other funds,” Magasis said.

Magasis said she was confident the county met that deadline and would not be at risk of losing additional funds. She said final distribution totals would not be available until July 10 or later, when the county receives its final invoices for June.

As of Tuesday, 98.8% of the funds had been distributed, according to the county’s rental assistance data page.

“I’m not really worried about our spending,” Magasis said. “The system really was just very, very difficult for us to run prior to being able to move it online.”

Because it’s assumed the county met the spending deadline, she said the county can now request the next round of federal funds, since it has only received and spent a portion of the allotment.

At the end of May, the county had a total of $11.5 million left to distribute across all funding sources, Magasis said. That total could fluctuate to reflect spending through the end of June and any additional Treasury funds received by the county.

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