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As rental assistance dwindles, RAMP CLT indefinitely halts new applications in Mecklenburg

David Boraks

Citing dwindling funds, RAMP CLT has indefinitely stopped accepting new applications for rent assistance in Mecklenburg County.

The program has been distributing millions of dollars in rent, utility and mortgage assistance from the federal government throughout the pandemic, but it shut down its online application portal on Dec. 15, 2021, and has kept it closed through January.

No public announcement was made, and very little information was given about the shutdown on the RAMP CLT website. Instead, at-risk renters who logged on to the website in January encountered a pop-up that said applications were closed, with no explanation.

Erin Barbee, chief strategy officer for DreamKey Partners, which manages the RAMP CLT program, said the program had roughly $19.2 million left to distribute — or $13.2 million from the county for rent and utility assistance and $6 million from the city of Charlotte for utilities only.

That money was expected to be depleted by the roughly 3,800 candidates who were still in the pipeline when applications were shut down in December, Barbee said.

The program may reopen applications if it receives more funding from the county or city. In a statement, County Manager Dena Diorio said the county planned to ask the federal government for more money for RAMP CLT, though it remained unclear when those extra funds might arrive.

Poor communication, renters at risk

Very little information about the portal shutdown was given to renters who visited the RAMP CLT website in January, and some renters say they were left wondering what was going on and where to go for help.

One of those renters was Marquis Lucas. He lost his job as an IT contractor in August 2021. Though he and his fiance had been able to pay rent for most of the pandemic, they had fallen behind in December and needed assistance to keep themselves and Lucas' three children in a rented townhome off Old Pineville Road.

In the past, RAMP CLT had opened up applications from the 1st through 14th of each month, but this month the application portal never opened up.

"There's just no information. You're just at a wall," Lucas said.

Lucas said he checked the website daily and called the organization repeatedly. He said he never got someone on the phone, and his voice mails were never returned. Finally, on Jan. 19, he received a text message from a staff member that said RAMP CLT had stopped taking applications due to "temporarily running out of funding," and that applications might reopen in mid-February.

By that time, Lucas had been served an eviction notice and a court date for Jan. 21.

Another applicant, Tisha Pink, said she also had difficulty reaching staff at RAMP CLT, and though she had filed an application prior to January, she had received no update on its status and had received conflicting information over whether it would be approved.

Pink said did not have an eviction notice as of Jan. 12 but expected one to come any day. She said the lack of communication meant she had no idea whether she would end up homeless in the coming weeks.

"I don't want to be evicted in the middle of winter," Pink said. "I am affected by COVID. These are the services and the programs that the federal government has put in place for the people that need to be helped, and it's like, can we be helped?"

High caseloads, thousands needing help

Barbee said RAMP CLT closed down the application portal because staff did not want to "build false hope in our community."

She said opening the portal would allow distressed people in need of rental assistance to think, "'I have a chance to get RAMP funds,' and since that's not possible, because of the amount of funding that we have left, it didn't seem right to our community to open this portal back up."

Barbee also said there were 41 caseworkers at RAMP CLT who were each responsible for processing 100 to 200 applications at any given time. Many were hired after losing their own jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.

DreamKey's president, Julie Porter, noted that RAMP CLT had helped thousands of people over the course of the pandemic. In 2021, RAMP CLT said it helped 11,000 households with $51 million in rental and mortgage assistance.

Porter also said her staff was sensitive to the vulnerable position many people seeking help from RAMP CLT are in and said staff members try to respond to people "as often as they possibly can."

"We do understand what's on the line for people who need rental assistance," Porter said. "Their housing is at risk, and having that stable housing, in our opinion, is one of the most important — if not the most important — aspect of people's mental health and their stress levels."

More funding possible, timeline unclear

Some Mecklenburg County commissioners told WFAE they were also unaware that rental assistance applications had been suspended. Commissioners George Dunlap, Leigh Altman, Mark Jerrell and Larua Meier all said they had not been notified of the portal shutdown.

Dunlap, the County Board of Commissioners chair, said that could have been communicated.

"Could they have done a better job of saying the portal is going to be open, it's going to be closed, we don't know when it's going to open up again, it's going to be based on availability of funds — that stuff could have been publicized," he said.

Dunlap and a representative for the county manager's office said Mecklenburg planned to ask the federal government for more funds for RAMP CLT, though a timeline remained unclear.

In the meantime, renters like Lucas and Pink remain at risk of losing their homes. Lucas said neither he nor his fiance were able to make it to their court date on Jan. 21. His fiance had work and he had to look after the kids. He said they hoped to appeal.

"We just have to take it from there and hope that the appeal stretches out or the next date is far enough so that we can either get some assistance from RAMP, or my thought is a GoFundMe or something, because if not, we'll be homeless," Lucas said. "That's just it."

The longer that RAMP CLT applications stay closed, he said, the more that worst-case scenario may become the most likely.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal