COVID-19 Homeowner Assistance Program Overcomes Skepticism to Support Hundreds of Arkansans

More than half of the approved applicants are African American homeowners.

White home in suburbs with brick sidewalk

The Arkansas Homeowner Assistance Fund is a federally-funded program to assist homeowners impacted by the pandemic. Arkansas was one of the first states to gain approval and applications opened in February. 

Officials operated a pilot program prior to launching an online portal to the public. While reaching out to individuals who needed help, they found people didn’t believe the free program was legitimate. They hung up the phone or didn’t return emails because they assumed it was a scam, said Derrick Rose, communications director for the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. However, Rose understands their disbelief.

“How do you not feel that way about a program that in some ways is too good to be true,” he said. “This is going to help me with my mortgage and it’s not going to cost me anything? Sure. Yeah right.”

The program is indeed real, backed by nearly $54 million in funding from the federal government. Designed to help Arkansans who are behind on their mortgages, electricity, gas and/or internet payments, HAF offers both mortgage reinstatement — which provides funds to eliminate or reduce past due payments and other delinquent amounts — as well as utility, internet and broadband payment assistance to low- and moderate-income homeowners impacted by COVID-19. 

To educate the public about the program initially, officials connected with faith-based organizations and distributed flyers in English, Spanish and Marshallese. Officials have since increased outreach efforts by launching a texting campaign and running ads on Facebook, TikTok, Google, Nextdoor, radio and television.

Program participants have also helped spread the word about the program and its legitimacy. Earlier this week, a person commented on a Facebook ad that the program is a scam. Before officials could respond, Rose said others who’ve used the program commented on how the initiative has helped them. While skepticism is diminishing, Rose said he understands the value of in-person conversations and ADFA staff are willing to go anywhere there’s a crowd to discuss the program.

“Getting out to those organizations, to the housing partners, anywhere we can go, we’ll show up to an opening of a can of tuna to tell you about the program and to make sure people understand and know about it, believe that it’s legit,” he said.

Roughly $4 million has been distributed to 376 households so far. Another 367 applicants have been approved and are awaiting service providers to complete the final part of the process. More than 80 servicers are participating in the program. Of the nearly 750 Arkansans who’ve been approved and have either received funding or are awaiting the final step in the process, more than half are African Americans. 

Arkansas has five years to distribute the funds, but Rose anticipates the program will only last six months to a year. If all of the funding is used, he estimates they’ll be able to serve 1,900 to 2,000 households.

“We’ve got a long time, but again, right now is the most important time,” he said. “People that are in trouble need to know about this program now.”

Funds are available to qualified applicants to prevent delinquent mortgages, defaults, foreclosures and loss of utilities. If approved, funds will be provided directly to mortgage companies, insurance companies, utility providers and counties. Homeowners must be at least two months behind on their mortgage and they can only apply once. They are eligible for up to $40,000 in mortgage payments and $2,500 for utilities.

To apply for assistance, applicants need a valid ID, proof of homeownership, income documentation and documents showing mortgage delinquency. From start to finish, officials are trying to complete the process in less than 40 days. If applicants don’t qualify for the program, ADFA will connect them with Credit Counseling of Arkansas for additional help.

“If you’re in this situation, we know the stress of not knowing what’s going to happen if you go into foreclosure and how you feel, so we’re doing our best to get this to as many people who qualify as we possibly can.”

Eligible homeowners can apply to the Arkansas Homeowner Assistance Fund at www.arkansashaf.com. They can also receive assistance by contacting a call center at 888-698-0964. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Spanish-speaking operators are available.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and 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.