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NEBRASKA EXAMINER: Ricketts says no to second round of rental assistance for Nebraska

'We should not be using taxpayer money to pay people’s rent..."
Pete Ricketts
Posted at 11:21 AM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 12:24:42-05

Nebraskans behind on their rent might miss out on a $120 million pot of money Congress set aside to help them.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday that Nebraska will not apply for a second round of federal emergency rental aid. 

“The federal government has said that you no longer need any impact of COVID to qualify for funding that was specifically allocated to address the impacts of COVID,” Ricketts said.

“We should not be using taxpayer money to pay people’s rent without a good reason,” he said. “It’s irresponsible spending like this that has ushered in record inflation and surging national debt, and in this case, Nebraska has elected not to take part.”

Nebraska and Arkansas are the only states that haven’t applied for the latest rental assistance funds.

Omaha State Sens. Terrell McKinney, Justin Wayne and Tony Vargas have criticized the governor for not pursuing the funds for residential renters and landlords. The governor’s budget proposal seeks funds for commercial landlords, Wayne said.

“What’s irresponsible is there are people still in census tracts in both of our districts who are unemployed at rates equal to or worse than in a recession,” Wayne said. “And to not help the renter and the landlord is irresponsible.” 

Nebraska’s refusal to take the money won’t save federal taxpayers any money. The $120 million in rental aid earmarked for Nebraska will be distributed to other states.

Omaha fair-housing advocate Erin Feichtinger said Nebraska’s money would “go to California renters and landlords.” 

The aid program pays up to 12 months of back rent and three months into the future, capped at $20,000 per household.

The local need for rental and utility assistance remains, Tanya Gifford of Lift Up Sarpy County said. 

Nearly 1,800 Sarpy County residents a month are calling a state hotline seeking rental and utility aid, she said. Over the past seven months, the state has approved only 2,019 applications for rental assistance from Sarpy using first-round funds. 

That leaves agencies like Lift Up Sarpy County scrambling to fill the gaps with help from churches, community agencies and schools.

If the governor won’t pursue the second round of rental assistance, she said, “we’re going to be out of funding.”

Landlords could use the help, too, said Rhonda Pederson of the Apartment Association of Nebraska. The group represents 76 landlords and management companies that operate 51,340 rental units statewide. 

Many landlords are working with renters on payment plans and seeking aid, she said. But in the meantime, landlords have to pay their bills, too.

“Anything that’s already earmarked for this would definitely help the situation,” Pederson said. 

The State of Nebraska’s rental assistance program received $158 million in the first round of funding.

Nebraska’s rental assistance program

What renters need to apply for first-round funds:

  • Copy of lease
  • Proof of address, such as a bill
  • Proof of identity 
  • Proof of COVID-19 loss (reduction in income, lost job, higher medical expenses, etc.)

Where to apply:

Source: Nebraska Investment Finance Authority

The state program covers residents of 91 of 93 counties. Douglas and Lancaster Counties, plus the cities of Omaha and Lincoln, operate their own rental assistance programs, which receive separate streams of federal dollars.

As of Jan. 26, the state program had distributed about $14 million, aiding 3,015 households, according to state statistics.

Because the state program had unspent funds, its leaders negotiated with the Treasury Department to share the money with the four programs in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, which have more applicants seeking the funds.

The state is transferring roughly $50 million to Omaha, $30 million to Lincoln, $3.3 million to Douglas County and $1.4 million to Lancaster County. 

Those four programs have also applied for second-round funds.

The state program has another $44 million to award by the end of September. Lee Will, Ricketts’ budget administrator, said that shows Nebraska has more than enough money to help renters and landlords impacted by COVID-19. 

The state, Will said, does not “feel that further funding is appropriate.” 

The first round of rental assistance requires Nebraskans to prove they’ve been harmed by the pandemic. That is not a requirement for the second-round funding.

That opens the door to fraud, the governor has said.

Nebraska has until the end of March to decide whether to pursue the federal funds. 

Nebraska Examiner reporters Cindy Gonzalez and Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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