MUST rental assistance (copy)

MUST Ministries administers Cherokee County’s Emergency Rental Assistance program, which assists individuals with rent and utilities for up to 15 months. Since the program started in April, MUST has paid out a little over $1 million to 259 tenants and landlords.

As evictions resume across the country, including Cherokee County, the county’s assistance program for renters, funded by federal relief dollars, has paid out less than a quarter of those funds since it began in April.

As of Wednesday, MUST Ministries, which distributes funds in Cherokee County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, had paid out a little over $1 million or 23% of the $4.5 million that the county received through the U.S. Treasury in March, according to Erika Neldner, communications director for the county government. As of late last week, the program assisted 259 tenants and landlords, and has received 563 applications, Neldner said.

MUST is providing assistance through its housing program. The program assists individuals with rent and utilities for up to 15 months, including 12 months back rent, and an additional three months. In this program, applicants must reapply for the additional three months after past due rents are paid. Landlords or tenants affected can apply.

Neldner said Wednesday that the reason why only 23% of the funds have been distributed through this program so far is that many people have had difficulty documenting how they have been affected financially by COVID-19. She said the Community Development Block Grant Program Office is working on a self-attestation form that, with Cherokee County Board of Commissioners approval, may lessen the financial documentation burden.

Cherokee County gave an additional $275,000 to MUST for eviction prevention assistance from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding late last year. These funds help to provide the eviction prevention assistance for up to six months.

In September 2020, the CDC instituted a moratorium halting evictions for nonpayment of rent, in what officials said was an effort to prevent homelessness and overcrowded housing conditions that could spread COVID-19. The ban was extended most recently to cover areas with what the CDC calls “substantial” and “high” COVID-19 transmission. The U.S. Supreme Court last Thursday blocked that extension, allowing evictions to resume. The court had previously struck down the moratorium before Biden issued a new moratorium in early August.

An estimated 191 Cherokee County residents were possibly facing eviction as of June 29, Falecia Stewart, vice president of housing at MUST Ministries told the Tribune in July. More recent numbers were not immediately available.

With the ban lifted, the Cherokee County Magistrate Court is experiencing a rise in eviction cases, Judge Gregory Douds said. While the federal moratorium was a criminal order and it didn’t affect cases pending in the civil court, and the court was still accepting eviction cases that were not covered, landlords had still scaled back on eviction filings.

Monday, the court had 128 ready cases, or open cases where tenants have filed answers and the cases are ready to be heard by the court, he said. This number was 73 open cases as of June 30, and 106 as of July 31. He added that about 60 cases were halted by court order where tenants qualified for protection under the moratorium, he said.

A new extension of Cherokee County’s judicial emergency filed Monday closes magistrate courtrooms through Sept. 30, unless the assigned judge in a case determines in-person proceedings are necessary. Eviction proceedings may be delayed by this order, Douds said.

“We’re all anxious to get back in the courtroom and clear our backlog of cases, but for now we’ll handle virtually as much as the law and our resources will permit,” he said.

For more information on the Emergency Rental Assistance program, visit www.mustministries.org/cherokee-co. For more on MUST Ministries housing programs, visit www.mustministries.org/housing.

Neldner said MUST Ministries will be taking onsite rental assistance applications on Sept. 10, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Woodstock Goodwill Career Center, 9425 Highway 92, Suite 142, Woodstock.

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