High demand for rental assistance in Denver is one measure of the pandemic’s economic impact

By mid-October, one of two nonprofits that administer rental assistance for the city had spent its entire budget for the program.

The Hidden Brook Apartments in East Colfax, Nov. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Hidden Brook Apartments in East Colfax, Nov. 21, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Updates with City Council approving additional money to distribute to people in need of rental assistance.

Speaking six languages has been key to Emmanuel Kamabela’s efforts to keep Denverites housed during the pandemic.

Kamabela has used his facility with languages to help his neighbors in East Colfax, a neighborhood with a large immigrant community, fill out forms to apply for rental assistance from the city.

“I know the challenge myself,” said Kamabela, who is from Congo and volunteers as a housing navigator for the East Colfax Community Collective. “When I came six years ago, language was a big barrier.”

Last month, rental assistance hit another barrier. By mid October, the Northeast Denver Housing Center, one of two nonprofits that administer Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance for Denver, spent its entire budget for the program known as TRUA. Kamabela, who lost his job as a hotel maintenance engineer after the pandemic hit, was affected himself. He had applied for help with October rent.

“They informed me there was no money,” Kamabela said.

Kamabela was told more money for the Northeast Denver Housing Center might come in November. He asked his landlord for more time to pay and is still waiting for the landlord’s response.

Over several council meetings in November, Denver City Council approved new TRUA infusions. Council considered the expedited request from the city housing department to provide almost $2 million in additional funds to the Northeast Denver Housing Center for the rental assistance program. The housing department also requested $550,000 in additional funds that was approved for Brothers Redevelopment Inc., the other TRUA administrator.

During its Nov. 23 meeting, City Council held a public hearing on TRUA. Westwood resident and single mother Mary Reyes said the program had helped her pay her rent twice after she had to cut back working hours to stay home with her son after his school  switched to remote learning.

“I may have to reapply,” Reyes said. “There’s going to be a lot of families in need.”

Some of the new money for TRUA came from the city’s affordable housing fund and other Denver sources, and some from federal COVID relief funds that Washington has said must be spent by the end of the year.

In addition, City Council in November approved taking $800,000 back from the Colorado Housing Assistance Corporation, which in July had been given $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to distribute to people who needed help paying their mortgages. Melissa Thate, the city’s housing stability director, told a City Council committee that the demand for mortgage assistance had been less than anticipated. Of the $800,000, $500,000 was shifted to rent relief. The city housing department was determining how to use the remaining $300,000.

The rent assistance programs of Northeast Denver Housing Center and Brothers are funded equally by the city. The nonprofits divide Denver geographically to administer assistance grants. The Northeast Denver Housing Center, which works mainly in east Denver, was planning to resume rent assistance quickly following Monday’s City Council vote.

Denver’s TRUA program began in late 2017. Helen Taylor, who directs Northeast Denver Housing Center’s housing counseling program, told Denverite that before the pandemic, people would seek help paying the rent for a variety of reasons, including facing the choice of paying for housing or covering an unexpected medical or car repair bill. Since COVID, the main reason has been job loss, Taylor said. She said many of the people her center supports work in the service industry, which has been particularly hard hit by the economic slowdown created by the pandemic.

In July, City Council had approved adding $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to TRUA, which had started the year with a budget of $2 million. In adding the funds, City Council also changed the program to allow it to cover 100 percent of the rent. In the past, grants paid up to 80 percent of the rent.

“When we went to 100 percent, that’s when the money really went,” said Northeast Denver Housing Center’s Taylor.

The exhaustion of funds “happened quick,” she said. “We saw it coming right when it was almost there.”

Taylor said Brothers made payments to about 40 approved requests that were pending with her center when the money ran out. After that, people who sought assistance through the city’s 311 line were no longer directed to the Northeast Denver Housing Center. Taylor said others who called the center directly were referred elsewhere, including to a program run by Denver Human Services and to a state rental assistance program.

Taylor’s center saw requests for TRUA help leap to 5,930 calls between April and September of this year, from 3,562 calls during the same period last year. Taylor has overseen the distribution of more than $2 million in rental assistance funds to 997 households between April and September of this year, compared to about $400,000 to 265 households over the same period in 2019.

Thate, the city’s housing stability director, said the Northeast Denver Housing Center has been receiving more applications for assistance than Brothers. Thate said that did not necessarily mean need was greater in east Denver, and that the pattern might change as Brothers steps up outreach.

During the Nov. 23 City Council public hearing, Megan Miles of the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative described her community group’s work with Brothers. She said Brothers was training her navigators to help people apply for rental assistance.

Jeff Martinez, president of Brothers Redevelopment, told City Council that “there’s just a lot of people in desperate situations.”

Taylor said the Northeast Denver Housing Center had an intern knocking on doors in large apartment complexes in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch in the first year of TRUA to spread the word about the program. That helped establish her organization’s reputation, Taylor said. The Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation helps Taylor’s center with outreach about TRUA, as do organizations such as Kamabela’s East Colfax Community Collective.

Gov. Jared Polis has ordered temporary statewide moratorium on some evictions, expanding on a federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September. But the moratorium doesn’t mean the rent isn’t due, and people are anxious about bills piling up.

Jesús Gonzalez, the East Colfax Community Collective’s community organizer, said that if funds can’t be earmarked for his neighborhood, perhaps the focus could be on ensuring the availability of navigators such as Kamabela. Kamabela and others have been volunteering in that role. The East Colfax Community Collective recently hired two part-time navigators and a third part-time staffer to help with the documentation needed to support a TRUA application. Gonzalez also helps with TRUA applications. He said that since April, his community group has fielded 180 requests for rental assistance. Of those, 61 households had received funding. Another 57 remain on hold because the Northeast Denver Housing Center ran out of funds, and 62 either did not pursue applications because of questions about their eligibility or were denied funds.

Gonzalez said the language barrier had been a particular challenge. Among the wide range of languages that can be heard in East Colfax are Amharic and Oromo, spoken in Ethiopia; and Dinka, spoken in Sudan. The TRUA application was revised in September to include versions in Amharic and several other languages.

Kamabela speaks French, Lingala and Rega, which are spoken in his native Congo; Swahili and Luganda, spoken in Uganda, where he spent a decade in a refugee camp before coming to the United States; and English, which he has studied in Denver. Kamabela said he was working on Spanish.

Kamabela said he struggled to care for his wife and their three children on unemployment after he lost his hotel job at the beginning of the pandemic. When he turned to TRUA for help with his rent in May, he was questioned about a separate bank account he had opened for his wife. He had to seek confirmation from the bank that she had no money in the account, and found that information so difficult to obtain that he closed the account. Kamabela was able to get rent assistance in May. He recently got a job as a cleaner, but still needed help with the rent in October.

Kamabela has used his experience and his greater command of English to help others. Applying requires a lot of paperwork, he said.

“Some people, they’re not able to get those documents,” he said. “It’s hard. They don’t know the language.”

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