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The city of Chattanooga will reopen its COVID-19 rental and utility assistance fund in June to help residents struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic after a slow rollout of the program last month.

When the city first launched this program in April, officials received about 1,000 inquiries from people struggling to pay either rent or utility bills in the midst of record unemployment rates, reduced hours and furloughs caused by business closures related to virus.

Just over a dozen residents actually completed their applications, according to Director of Economic and Community Development Donna Williams.

"A thousand folks went on to the city's website to fill out a submission form, indicating their interest and their need for rent and utility assistance. Filling that form out probably takes 45 seconds, so let's let's call it a minute," Williams explained on a call with reporters Thursday morning. "But the unfortunate part, we have received less than 75 applications out of 1,000 people. And of those, only 16 of them are completed."

According to Williams, each person who filled out the submission form was contacted directly by the office to ensure they had access to and understanding of how to fill out the form. Still, many were either not directly affected by the virus, not residents of the city or in some other way unable to submit the application.

Williams said many renters may not realize that relief they got from other programs was temporary, so they could still face eviction or unmanageable payments if they don't get help.

"People often wait until the crisis is a bigger crisis," Williams said, noting that while utility providers had not been cutting off connections and evictions were temporarily stalled by the state, those programs will end and the bills will be due.

"They're not forgiving your utility bills, they've just not disconnected. So, every, every penny that is owed to them, will still be owed to them down the road and the same is true with the landlords. You could not have been evicted at one point, but that ended last week and now you can. So we want to be able to help them get their rent paid to avoid eviction."

According to Richel Albright, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office, the city's existing utility assistance program has also seen a sharp decline in recent weeks as the threat of utility disconnections has been temporarily lifted.

"Our Office of Family Empowerment — which has the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program which is specific towards utilities — is seeing a decrease in applicants right now," Albright noted. "And so we're trying to figure out a way to say, 'Hey, just because EPB is saying they won't cut you off, you're still going to have to pay that full amount, and that's going to create more of a burden, so please take advantage of that service, while you can.'"

With more outreach to explain the applications and promote the program, the city hopes to find takers for the $850,000 in available coronavirus assistance, granted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help renters and utility providers begin to expect deferred payments after two months of impact of the virus.

"So, at this point, we know that we're gonna have plenty of money unless something drastically changes in the amount of completed applications we receive," Williams said. "We will start the process all over again, in hopes of being able to help as many candidates as possible, because we know unemployment is high. Folks are not able to pay their rent."

The city will take applications for the COVID-19 fund from June 1-30 on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, renters must:

— Be a citizen of Chattanooga for at least 6 months

— Be able to prove that they either lost a job, were furloughed, lost hours, had reduced pay or work in an industry directly affected by COVID-19 closures

— Provide proof of residential agreement, like a lease

— Make below 80% of the median area income

— Fill out the online application or contact the office of Economic and Community Development to acquire aa physical copy of the application

The federally funded Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program can help by providing a credit on a household's energy bill that will cover or reduce some home energy costs. Anyone in Hamilton County may apply. They can email liheap@chattanooga.gov, reach out through the Office of Family Empowerment Facebook page — facebook.com/chattanoogaofe — or call the office at (423) 643-6434.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor

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