After nearly two hours of discussion, the Cowlitz County commissioners approved a $9.4 million contract with the state to administer a rent and utility assistance program through June 2023.
The agreement with the state Department of Commerce to administer the Eviction Rent Assistance Program (ERAP) 2.0 is the third COVID-related rental assistance program the county has run over the last two years, said Gena James, county health and human services deputy director.
Unlike the Treasury Rent Assistance Program the county has administered through Lower Columbia CAP since May, the newer program doesn’t require people to prove job or wage loss from the pandemic. Applicants still will need to prove income eligibility and be behind on rent or utility bills.
The program will prioritize people with an eviction or utility shutoff notice to prevent them from losing their housing, James said. The assistance goes directly to the landlord, property management company or the utility.
Over the last 16 months, CAP distributed about $6.9 million in rent and utility assistance to more than 1,300 households through the programs, James said.
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Cowlitz PUD Director of Regulatory Affairs Steve Taylor said the utility received about $375,000 from TRAP to cover unpaid bills and has about $1.2 million in COVID-related arrears.
If the PUD had to absorb the cost, passing it on to ratepayers would mean an increase of about $2.60 monthly for a year, Taylor said.
“It’s not a significant amount of money ... but we’re more concerned with the principle,” he said. “If the money is available, and it’s made available specifically for these purposes, and it’s not applied then the remaining customer base for the PUD is going to absorb that.”
Steve Dahl, a Realtor and property manager, asked the commissioners to approve the program to help less fortunate Cowlitz County residents stay housed, as well as landlords and utilities become whole.
Commissioner Arne Mortensen said he objected to the program because it only helps a certain group of people. These types of programs exacerbate the housing problem because there is no incentive to keep prices down when the government will pay, he said.
Commissioner John Jabusch said while the program may be “kicking the can down the road,” he’s heard from multiple people, including landlords, homeless advocates and renters to accept the money.
“We find ourselves here today under these circumstances because of things the landlords, the renters, the utility companies didn’t have any choice over,” he said.
Commissioner Dennis Weber said while the program is not a perfect solution, it is an opportunity to help people harmed by a problem the government caused.
Several citizens spoke in favor and opposition of the program.
The commissioners approved the contract in a 2-1 vote, with Mortensen opposed.
James said she will bring forward a related contract with CAP to administer the program in the next couple weeks.