Emergency Rental Assistance Much Needed in Marshallese Community

Technology and the language barrier present roadblocks to the application process.

Apartment building exterior

The Marshallese community in Northwest Arkansas has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, accounting for nearly 38 percent of all deaths in Benton and Washington counties from March through June 2020. As the pandemic has continued, families have faced lost wages due to illness, quarantine and a reduction in work hours, resulting in many Marshall Islanders seeking rental assistance to avoid evictions.

“It’s so bad,” said Trina Marty, project specialist for the Marshallese Educational Initiative.

Language and technology are some of the biggest barriers to accessing rental assistance programs. The Washington County Emergency Rental Assistance Program began accepting applications in June and in August, officials reached out to MEI to help with the language barrier. 

MEI began assisting clients with the program Sept. 6 and helped 45 families over the first two weeks. If all appointments are kept, the organization expects to serve an additional 40 families this week.

Clients can visit MEI’s Springdale office where someone will help them fill out an application that’s been translated into Marshallese and upload it to an online portal. The next challenge is waiting and responding if additional information is requested. 

When officials notify applicants of missing documents via email, they often return to MEI for more assistance and then wait for a response. They also have to wait for landlords to complete their part of the process.

“I think that’s just one of the tedious parts…it’s just a lot of back and forth,” MEI program coordinator Marcina Langrine said.  

Marshallese clients don’t always have the luxury of time and some are served an eviction notice while awaiting approval for rental assistance. In these instances, Marty has to communicate that information to Washington County so they make that client’s application a priority. 

Marty tells clients the process can take three to four weeks, but in the interim, families are being charged additional fees that put them even more in debt. Most Marshallese live in apartment complexes, Langrine said, and with the eviction notices, there are legal fees as well as daily and monthly fees added on top of their rent.

“It gets to the point that they can’t even pay,” Langrine said. “They’re simply trying to catch up, but then there’s all these other fees and charges added on to it. It just makes it impossible for them to do so because by then it’s the next month already.”

Washington County received more than $7.1 million in federal funding for emergency rental assistance which is divided among three entities. The Fayetteville Housing Authority and the Springdale Housing Authority received $1.5 million each. FHA opened applications Feb. 8, issued final payments in August and provided rental assistance to 378 households. The Springdale Housing Authority has supported 348 families and still has funds remaining, though applications are no longer being accepted. 

The remaining $4.1 million in funding was allocated to the Washington County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The county program has distributed $528,000 bringing the total funding administered by FHA, SHA and the county to approximately $2.5 million, Washington County Judge Joseph Wood said.

Because Washington County doesn’t typically deal with housing, Wood said they contracted with a third party to process the rental assistance applications. ReFrame Solutions, headquartered in Connecticut, has set up a call center that Washington County residents can call if they have questions with the application process.

“It made just a lot of sense to go ahead and look at a third party, bid it out and then that’s how we landed where we are,” Wood said. 

In addition to asking MEI to assist Marshallese applicants, Washington County hired a contractor to do outreach in the Spanish-speaking community. The contractor also helped raise awareness about Benton County’s rental assistance program, Wood said.

Washington County is one of three Arkansas counties to receive federal funding. Benton and Pulaski counties received $8.3 million and $11.7 million, respectively. The state received $173 million which is being distributed by the Department of Human Services to the other 72 counties in Arkansas. 

Where Marshallese residents live impacts where they can apply for emergency rental assistance as well as how soon they receive payment, said Cory Crawford, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas focused on housing. Crawford has helped clients apply for rental assistance in both Benton and Washington counties. 

Benton County funding is distributed through Hark, which is a division of Excellerate Foundation, a nonprofit community foundation serving Northwest Arkansas. Funds from Hark are typically distributed in two to three weeks, while it takes at least six weeks for Washington County, Crawford said.

When facing eviction, the longest Crawford can extend a case from notice to vacate to a hearing is three to four weeks, so if Washington County applicants have to wait six weeks, it’s too late, he said.

“It’s the same federal funds and it shouldn’t be a situation where just because you live across one county line is the difference between getting evicted and not, but that unfortunately is the case right now,” Crawford said.

It can take weeks for entities around the country like Washington County to process these applications, Judge Wood said, because of all of the documentation that needs to be collected from both tenants and their landlords. If everything is turned in correctly, he estimates the process could be completed in 7 to 10 days. However, staff members processing applications often have to ask for additional information and await responses.

“We can only go as fast as the information that they provide, the applicant as well as the landlord,” Wood said. “When the landlord is not participating or not putting their information in, after a number of tries then it can go directly to the applicant.”

It’s important not to skip steps in order to save time because there could be repercussions for not following guidelines set by the federal government, he said. 

“We’re not trying to go around because again, we are subject to federal audits and federal guidelines and if you miss any of that, then that impacts other federal grants that you may apply for if they find that you’ve been not proper in taking care of those dollars they’ve allocated,” Wood said.

In working with both counties, one of the biggest differences Crawford has experienced is communication. Connecting with someone in Washington County is more difficult, he said, because there is only one phone number listed on the county’s website for all questions and the wait time can be 15 to 20 minutes on a good day. When there’s an issue with an application in Benton County, Crawford said he can directly contact a person at Hark working on his client’s case. 

Hark focuses on connecting people to community resources in Benton, Madison and Washington counties. With the expected uptick in clientele for emergency rental assistance, Hark hired 10 part-time and full-time employees to focus specifically on the program by reviewing applications and reaching out to clients for additional information.

Since February, Hark has distributed $6.9 million to 1,397 different households. Applications are still being accepted and Susan Upchurch, Excellerate Foundation’s chief financial officer, projects they will run out of these funds in the next month. However, Hark is working with the state and Benton County on additional funding and Upchurch said she expects to continue providing rental assistance without a pause.

Of the approximately 1,400 families served through the current emergency rental assistance program, 6 percent were Asian, nearly 7 percent were African American and 12 percent were Hispanic. 

Hark has been able to process applications and payments at a steady pace because they already had technology in place when the program started, Upchurch said. In December 2019, Excellerate Foundation partnered with the Walton Family Foundation to create Catalyst Fund NWA, a short-term financial assistance program. Staff members refined their process between March and December 2020, so they were ready when the emergency rental assistance program opened in 2021. 

“We had to work pretty hard to make some more modifications, but we had technology day one,” Upchurch said. “Everyone else was out there, ‘I don’t have technology, I don’t have people on staff to do that’…That’s another thing that I think slowed a lot of people down.”

One challenge Hark has faced is getting word out that funding is available. The more awareness that can be brought to the program, the more people that can be helped, she said.

“People are reaching out and they’ve got bills that are past due into 2020,” Upchurch said. “They used up all their savings and they’re just now finding out about it.”

Federal authorities asked funding recipients to spend 65 percent of their money by Sept. 30 or risk having their funds reallocated. Losing access to that money would be detrimental to Arkansans who really need it, Crawford said.

“Residents in Arkansas who already face the hurdle of being a tenant in Arkansas, which has the worst tenant laws in the country, now they have no money to get the rental assistance because [Arkansas officials] failed their residents,” Crawford said.

Several of the clients he’s serving in both counties belong to minority communities. Crawford estimates at least 25 percent are Marshallese, far outpacing their presence in the region. About 10 percent belong to the Hispanic community, while the Black community accounts for another 10 percent. Low-income jobs in the region are filled primarily by people of color, which is why these communities will be most impacted if rental assistance cannot be provided in a timely manner, Crawford said. 

“It’s frustrating as much as it is heartbreaking. There’s a lot of unnecessary evictions happening,” he said. “There is certainly homelessness that is going to be happening that does not need to happen. There’s money there for homelessness to be prevented and it’s not going to be funded.”

Additional rental assistance is available to Marshallese families through the Emergency Solutions Grant Program. MEI was approved for more than $443,500 which must be spent by Sept. 30, 2022. The group began administering the federal funding in December 2020 and an MEI representative said it is more difficult to qualify for ESG funding than the Washington County Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The organization will continue to serve the Marshallese community and officials said they could use more bilingual volunteers to help them do so. More information is available on the Marshallese Educational Initiative’s Facebook page.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.