A total of $1,985,509 in Emergency Rental Assistance Program has been paid out so far to 723 applicants, according to Office of Grants Management administrator Epiphanio Cabrera Jr. yesterday.
In an interview at the ERA office at the former Pena House in Chalan Kanoa, Cabrera said the Department of Finance is the one processing the ERA payments to the landlords. He said ERA applications are processed at their office and they send it off to Finance for payments.
“So far, the process is moving along. It’s just the way we’re trying to prepare,” Cabrera said.
He conceded that the CNMI has a mark to hit when it comes to expending this funding assistance. That target is to expend 65% of the $10.9 million that the CNMI received in ERA 1.
Cabrera said every two to three days, they receive checks of about $130,000 to $243,000 in payments from Finance as they get processed.
He said they are prepared to do the recertification process for the approved applicants. “We can pay up to three months prospective rent and then the inspectors have to go back to recertify the household to make sure that they’re still living there so that we can give them another three months of prospective,” he said.
Cabrera said they can’t just give money as they have to determine if the applicants are still living there or not, and check if they no longer qualify for the program because they made an extra income.
“We have to do our due diligence in the recertification process,” he pointed out.
The OGM administrator said the over 700 being assisted are U.S. citizens, green card holders, and long-term residents, who are eligible for rental assistance for now.
He said 1,400 applied, half have been assisted, and the rest are still waiting for documents to be submitted such as the business license of the landlords.
Cabrera said the $10.4 million in ERA 1 money ends this December, but they are seeking an extension.
“We have to show that we are progressing,” he said.
For ERA 2, they will get $7.9 million, he said, and that they already received $3.5 million as partial.
He said ERA 2’s deadline is Sept. 30, 2022.
Cabrera said the current challenges is that many apartment owners lack a business license.
He said a lot of their clients assume that the program will pay 100% of their Commonwealth Utilities Corp. bills. “No. But there is a threshold, a maximum allowable threshold that we can only assist with,” he said.
Also, some clients think that the program will cover everything, Cabrera said. “They still have an obligation and a responsibility to pay their share,” he said.
Cabrera said 10% of the ERA money is for administrative costs.
He said it’s been a rough start but they’re trying to get the money out.
Cabrera said they have to start off with the new office building, new personnel, and office equipment.
“We hope that the public understand that we guys are really working around the clock to try and streamline the process,” he said.
Cabrera said they started making payments at the end part of last May.
Cabrera previously stated that, based on their calculation, the rental assistance program can assist up to 1,500 clients a month.
The program aims to reduce evictions and to keep CNMI citizens in stable homes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The additional $7.9 million for the program is part of the American Rescue Plan’s over $500 million that is allocated to the CNMI.