Marjiorianna Willman (left), the city’s Director of Housing Policy and Community Development, listens to public comments at a City Council meeting criticizing the city's emergency rental assistance program. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans will reopen the application process for the city’s emergency rental assistance program after closing it roughly two weeks ago, Marjorianna Willman, the city’s Director of Housing Policy and Community Development, told a City Council committee on Thursday.

But Willman warned that the city had already received far more applications than it will be able to approve with the available funding. 

“Part of my thought was I did not want to give people false hope, but after listening, I have no problem with reopening applications,” she said.

Willman’s announcement came after two hours of public comment regarding the rental assistance program, during which residents — including many Spanish-speaking residents — raised issues with the program, including a lack of accessibility for people who don’t speak English, the speed of the process and the fact that 95 percent of the funds are going directly to landlords instead of tenants. 

One of the most common concrete demands was that the city should reopen the application process. Willman told the Council that she had no problem with that.  In an interview with The Lens following the meeting, she said it could happen in the next day or two. 

But it’s unclear whether people who apply at this point will have a shot at getting aid.

Willman explained that the 12,000 applications the city has already received was double what she could expect to fulfill even in the most optimistic funding scenario.

“The bottom line is there isn’t enough funds to serve everyone,” Willman said during her presentation. “It barely touches half of the need. And that’s throughout the country. It’s not just in New Orleans, it’s everywhere. There’s simply not enough funding.”

The city opened up the program in February using millions of dollars in federal aid specifically earmarked for rental assistance. The city has already received $11.6 million directly. It also expects another $15.1 million in federal dollars routed through the state. Willman said there was a chance the state allocation could be even larger if other Louisiana parishes don’t spend their full allocation. 

On top of that, the city has applied for another $15.6 million in federal funding for the program, which would go directly to the city. If that money is granted, that would bring in a total of $42.5 million for the program. 

The city was flooded with applications soon after the program was opened on February 15, getting over 5,000 in the first two weeks and reaching 8,622 applications by the end of March. By the time applications were cut off in late May, the total number of applications was over 12,000. 

Director of Housing Tyra Brown said only a small portion of applications, roughly five percent, are being disqualified, meaning that the vast majority would be eligible for aid if the funds were available. 

Willman estimated that the city would need $84 million to serve all those applicants, far more than is expected to be available. 

But despite the high demand, the city has only spent a fraction of the funds. So far, the city has approved 1,102 applications for a total of $6.2 million in aid — about half of the money that have been available since the program opened in February — according to Willman’s presentation. The average assistance per application is $5,710. 

Willman said that the city expected to pay out the remainder of it’s direct $11.6 million allocation by the end of June, serving an estimated 1,657 total applicants. 

The $15.1 million from the state was originally expected to come as a lump sum, but Willman said that now, the city will have to submit individual approved applications for reimbursement instead. She said that the state hasn’t yet opened up the process to submit applications for reimbursement, but estimated that they would spend all of that money by the end of August to fund an estimated 2,000 additional applications. 

If the US Department of Treasury does approve the city’s request for an additional $15.6 million, Willman expects those funds to be dispersed by the end of September. In total, after combining all three funding streams, the city would have enough money to approve an estimated 6,000 applications — covering about half of applications that have already been submitted. 

Many of the public comments on Tuesday focused on how long it’s taking the city to get the money into the hands of those who need it. 

Willman said that her office had put out an “offering for service” to outsource some of the administrative functions to speed up the process. She said that they received four applications in response, including one from Total Community Action, and that they would make a decision in the next two weeks. She said the city was allowed to spend up to 10 percent of the federal funds on administration.

Perhaps the greatest consensus among Willman, City Council members and critics of the program was that the coronavirus had exacerbated an existing affordable housing crisis, and that this program wouldn’t be nearly enough to fix it. 

During public comment, resident Elizabeth Cook said that she supported reopening the application process, if only so the city could get a better picture of the dire housing situation in the city.

“I think this illustrates the need in our city for affordable housing, which is rapidly disappearing,” Cook said. “I think it should be reopened for applications just so you can see the accurate need in this city. With a closed application process you don’t really know. You know it’s gotta be huge. It’s very big. And it will not be solved by this program, let’s be honest here.”

Other speakers complained that the lack of translating services offered by the city’s Office of Community Development, which is administering the program, creates additional barriers for non-native English speakers. 

Willman’s presentation provided a demographic breakdown of renters aided through the program so far: 81.5 percent Black, 12.5 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic, .1 percent Asian and 2 percent “other or not specified.”

According to Census Bureau estimates from 2019, New Orleans is 59.5 percent Black, 31.7 percent white, 5.5 percent Hispanic and 2.9 percent Asian. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...