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More than 100 families have already sought assistance to pay bills, especially rent. 

As Congress debates whether to pass another aid package to support millions of Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, some Blaine County groups are bracing for another wave of demand for rental assistance.

A moratorium on evictions has already expired. On Friday, an additional $600-per-week unemployment benefit passed by Congress under the CARES Act is set to expire. This could leave some families without the resources needed to pay rent. As a result, one in five of the 110 million Americans living in rental households are at risk of eviction by October, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based advocacy group.

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, the Blaine County Charitable Fund was established to provide financial assistance to those unable to find help elsewhere. The fund was answering calls from 30 families each week in April and May during the height of the local coronavirus crisis. These days, the fund fields calls from about six families each week, the majority of whom need rental assistance.

The fund’s president, Mary Fauth, said 85 percent of the 135 families who have received its aid are Hispanic. She said it is likely that many of her clients are undocumented and therefore unqualified to receive unemployment checks or other CARES Act funding, like forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration.

“But we don’t know for sure, because we never ask whether or not they are undocumented,” Fauth said.

The Blaine County Charitable Fund takes referrals from the Hunger Coalition, St. Luke’s Center for Community Health and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which started during the pandemic primarily to help members of the Hispanic community. The Charitable Fund recently received a $30,000 grant from the Spur Foundation, some of which was used to hire recent Wood River High School graduate and current CSI student Monica Carillo to provide translation services.

Fauth said she is staying in close touch with potential donors in case there is another spike in coronavirus cases, or if the economy gets negatively impacted by further closures.

“We are bracing for a repeat of the crisis,” Fauth said. “We want to be here to assist people if they lose their jobs or if the school classrooms don’t open, which would leave parents unable to work because they would have to stay home with their children.”

So far, the Blaine County Charitable fund has raised $200,000, of which $140,000 has been dispersed by the volunteers running the organization. Fauth said 73 percent of the funding has gone toward rent payments and 15 percent toward utilities. The rest has paid for miscellaneous expenses.

Idaho’s newly formed Housing Preservation Program is also set up to provide rental assistance. Fauth said the state could fund it with as much as $15 million to provide relief from specific COVID-19 impacts. This funding is available to legal residents, whether they are renters or landlords, to cover rent or utilities. Eligibility is based on current household income, risk of eviction or risk of utility shut-off because of the COVID-19 crisis.

In order to qualify for the assistance, an applicant must be earning 80 percent or less than the area median income, which is $43,900 for an individual in Blaine County and $62,700 for a family of four. The Blaine County Charitable fund has focused on families well below that mark, Fauth said. It has mostly helped those earning around 10 to 30 percent of the area median income, between $15,000 to $30,000.

Fauth said the Blaine County Charitable Fund typically covers rent for only one or two months. Since many of her clients have not returned for further assistance, she assumes they are back to work and doing well for the time being.

In order to provide a network of rental assistance funding, the Blaine County Charitable Fund has partnered with the Blaine County Housing Authority, which has a $500 per month rental assistance program that can provide additional assistance.

BCHA Executive Director Nathan Harvill said the organization’s rental assistance fund has helped eight households with rent payments, with two more families currently in the request pipeline.

But, he said the fund used to avoid evictions by covering rent payments now has only $1,600 in the bank.

“We are beginning to deplete that fund,” Harvill said. “We have been trying to make a Facebook fundraiser, things like that to raise awareness.”

This week, Congress is debating whether to pass a $3 trillion package that Democrats passed in the House of Representatives in May, or a White House-backed plan authored by Senate Republicans that calls for about $1 trillion in new spending.

A new Senate Republican plan proposes cutting weekly emergency unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 until states can bring a more complicated program online to would pay the unemployed 70 percent of the income they collected before they lost their jobs, the Washington Post reported earlier this week.

Email the writer: tevans@mtexpress.com

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