Tate Reeves halts Mississippi’s involvement in federal rental assistance program, a move called ‘heartless’ by one critic

Published 9:29 pm Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Mississippi will soon stop accepting applications to a federal rental assistance program created during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people stave off evictions, Gov. Tate Reeves announced Wednesday.

The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program will not accept any applications past Aug. 15, and the state will return as much as $130 million for the program back to the federal government. The total amount that will be returned to the Treasury Department will decrease with each new application that is approved or recertified, according to the governor’s office.

“It’s time our state returns to pre-pandemic policies,” Reeves said at a press conference. “We will continue to say ‘no’ to these types of projects and handouts that encourage people to stay out of the workforce.”

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While Reeves praised a “booming” Mississippi economy, he said there are still too many people in the state “being paid not to work.” Labor shortages across the country have led to staffing woes for some employers and increased job opportunities for some workers.

Mississippi has spent $200 million in federal emergency rental assistance. The Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program is administered by the Mississippi Home Corporation. The money can pay for up to 15 months of rental and utility assistance.

The governor said the program has received 86,146 applications since it launched. Of that total, 36,889 applications have been approved, and 32,442 have been denied. The remaining applications are still being processed. Applicants who have already applied for the program will not be affected by the decision.

Reeves said the program made sense at the beginning of the pandemic because people lost unemployment through no fault of their own. Mississippi’s COVID-19 state of emergency ended over eight months ago.

Vangela Wade, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, called Reeves’ decision “outrageous, heartless and utterly devoid of any reason.”

“Nearly one in three renter households in Mississippi is extremely low-income, and our state is short more than 48,000 affordable rental homes for extremely low-income renters,” Wade said. “But the Governor has decided to make housing even more precarious.”

The data referenced by Wade comes from the National Low Income House Coalition. The organization estimates that 46% of low-income Mississippi households are spending more than 30% of their income on rent.

To qualify for the program, renters must make no more than 80% of their area’s median income. But Reeves said the program’s requirements for determining whether a person needs aid are too lax, opening it up to fraudulent claims.

In August 2021, the Treasury Department issued guidance encouraging state and local governments to allow tenants to self-assess their income and their risk of becoming homeless.

John Jopling, housing law director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the program is designed to ensure funds are for their intended purpose.

“The Governor claims that the program pays people to stop working, but fails to mention that RAMP payments are made directly to the landlords,” Jopling said.

American Family Association Action, a conservative Christian nonprofit group, praised Reeves’ decision to end the program amid an ongoing labor shortage.

“The federal rental assistance program is another COVID-era welfare program that helps explain why people are not getting back to work, even when employers are offering massive hiring bonuses, higher hourly wages and new flexibility for workers,” said Jameson Taylor, director of government affairs for AFA Action.

Reeves said the move will encourage recipients of the aid who don’t have jobs to reenter the workforce. He said the state is doing “everything in its power” to recruit companies that offer higher wages.

Mississippi has not enacted a state minimum wage, and the federal standard is still $7.25. Reeves said at the Wednesday press conference that he was open to the idea of increasing the state’s minimum wage.