Photo by Ashley Brown/Flickr.

When West Virginia unveiled a new rental assistance program in March 2021 to prevent evictions and utility shutoffs, Gov. Jim Justice promised help was on the way. 

“This year has been challenging for so many West Virginians. Many lost their jobs and have struggled to pay rent through no fault of their own,” he said in a press release. “These are great West Virginians who are contributors to our economy in every way. We’re all-in to help them, and I could not be happier about this wonderful program.”

But as the state prepares to close the federally funded Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program 18 months later, a large amount of the money didn’t reach West Virginians. State officials estimate by mid-October, they’ll have returned $86 million of that original $350 million to the federal government. They spent it too slowly, so it was redistributed to other states.

Officials have repeatedly blamed their failure to meet federal spending requirements on West Virginia being a small state where most people aren’t renters. But that doesn’t mean West Virginians don’t still need this money. 

“There is definitely still a need,” said Shannon Cunningham-Snead. She’s the executive director of Central WV Community Action, which is one of 16 community action agencies statewide that helped connect West Virginians with emergency rental assistance. “Even here at the agency, we’ve had a resurgence of COVID cases among some of our staff members. So folks are still having to spend time away from work. And in many cases, that’s unpaid. So COVID has not gone away.”

Slow distribution amid pressing need 

The Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, administered by the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, was originally intended to help West Virginians who couldn’t pay rent or utilities for pandemic-related reasons. And although President Biden recently said the COVID-19 pandemic is “over,” West Virginia still has among the nation’s highest daily average caseloads per capita. 

West Virginia received two pots of federal emergency rental assistance funding for the program: $200 million that had to be spent by this October; and $150 million that must be spent by October 2025. 

While the first round of funding could only be spent on rent and utilities, the second round of funding came with less stringent requirements. This money has helped West Virginians pay security deposits, application fees and recovery house fees. Other funds went toward paying program staff and advertising.

The federal government first took back some of West Virginia’s emergency rental assistance funding — over $3 million — in December 2021. States had to regularly meet spending requirements or risk having funds redistributed, even though the first pot of funding hadn’t officially expired.

Officials in small rural states, which struggled to distribute funds quickly, criticized this requirement, arguing their slow pace didn’t reflect a lack of need. 

“I can’t emphasize enough, we never want to give money back,” said West Virginia Housing Development Fund Director Erica Boggess at the time. 

By next month, officials estimate the state will have lost an additional $83 million that could have otherwise gone to keep West Virginians in their homes. 

Although a federal eviction moratorium temporarily prevented people from being kicked out of their homes, it expired in August 2021. 

So far this year, more than 6,600 eviction cases have been filed statewide, according to the West Virginia Supreme Court. In the past, data collected from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab has found, on average, 84% of these West Virginia filings have led to evictions; if that trend has continued, it would mean about 5,500 West Virginia households have been evicted so far this year.

And as August began, approximately 30,000 West Virginian adults lived in households that were at least one month behind on rent payments, according to the U.S. Census.

Cunningham-Snead says her agency has also seen a dramatic increase in phone calls from West Virginians seeking more rental assistance. Some folks had come to the end of their “qualifying period of support.” Others failed to turn in their materials before the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program abruptly stopped taking new applications. 

State officials say the reason they’ve been unable to distribute all of the federal money is due to West Virginia’s size and small renter population. They also emphasized that they’ve helped many West Virginians, distributing $160 million in aid as of Sept. 21.

“They passed these laws very quickly, trying to get assistance out to people who needed it,” Boggess said in January. “Some states got more than they’re going to need, and others didn’t get what they needed, comparatively.… So even if we have expended every single thing in our pipeline, we’re still not hitting those funding ratios. We’re just not that big of a state.” 

West Virginia isn’t the only rural state whose officials have said they aren’t to blame for slow distribution; Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon wrote to Congress in September 2021, describing similar challenges and criticizing the federal government’s strict funding rules. 

But other small rural states fared better. During the first-round of federal funding, Alaska received $200 million – just like West Virginia. And despite having three times fewer income-qualifying households, Alaska had distributed 99% of that money by this July. 

Despite the tens of millions of dollars that West Virginia lost, MRAP manager Jessica Greathouse estimates the state will still have about $40 million in its coffers by mid-October. Although that money could’ve been used to continue the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, WVHDF wanted to prioritize other programs. 

“We could have continued the MRAP program by continuing having applications come in,” Greathouse said. “The reality is, the burn rate of the money is roughly about $500,000 a day in application payments, rent, utilities, internet, and it wasn’t going to last very long. Other programs can create long term solutions.” 

The agency is seriously considering using some of the remaining funds to build affordable housing. But Greathouse said they are also making plans to provide emergency funding for people who are experiencing homelessness or at imminent risk for eviction. But for now, those plans remain works in progress. 

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated the university the Eviction Lab is associated with. It is run by Princeton University.

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.