Following concerns the statewide COVID-19 rent relief program was not reaching Southeast Tennessee, the director overseeing the program said assistance is coming as the agency verifies the approximately 20,000 applications it received so far.

Ralph Perrey, executive director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, said it takes around four weeks to verify eligibility on an application.

The federal grant requires the agency to prioritize people with eviction notices, unemployment for 90 days or more or those who make less than 50% of the area median income, Perrey said, so the program is not "first come, first served," and that is causing some slowdown.

"It's good to have this assistance for people who need it, but the federal program does come with requirements. We can't just take your word for it," Perrey said. "Unfortunately, that makes the application a little more complicated than it would be in an ideal world."

The second coronavirus relief bill, passed in December 2020, provided the U.S. Department of the Treasury with $25 billion to help households pay rent or utilities. Cities or counties with more than 200,000 people as of 2019 were eligible to receive funds for their residents.

Residents in areas that did not or could not receive the special funds could apply for relief through a state-run program.

Tennessee was given $457 million for the program, which after removing the money for some local governments that chose to administer their own programs left $383.4 million for the state agency to provide in rent or utility relief.

Knox County, Memphis, Nashville, Rutherford County and Shelby County all applied for funds that could be used exclusively for their residents.

Hamilton County, which likely would have received between $10 and $14 million exclusively for its residents, elected not to set up a program to distribute funds locally but opted to have residents apply through the statewide program.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he believed more money could flow into the county through the state-run program, and he did not think the county should create a separate program when the state already had an application process.

Advocates raised concerns about the decision and said they would prefer to have the funds administered by the county, so people struggling to apply would have a local contact.

As of Wednesday, the state had received 1,102 applications from Hamilton County, according to the department. About half of those are being reviewed, waiting for more information or are in the process of being paid, the department said. Four applications were denied, and 15 applicants withdrew their application.

Data was not available on the number of applicants who have been approved.

"It's early enough in the program that the sample size is small, but my sense is that the overwhelming majority of the folks who give us a complete application are going to be found to be eligible and we can assist them," Perrey said.

Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said partner agencies she works with are reporting that people are struggling with the application. They are unlikely to call the program's 800-number. In-person assistance, especially in rural areas, could help more people access available resources, she said.

"The overwhelming problem I keep hearing from everyone is that it's complicated," she said.

Winters said she hopes more people take advantage of the resource given the economic impact COVID-19 had on the community. The state estimates an additional $300 million will come to Tennessee for rent relief through the latest stimulus package, passed in March.

"We want to try to reach as many eligible people as possible," Perrey said. "We're continuing our outreach efforts so people understand who's eligible and how you apply and where you can get some help if you have questions about how to do it."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfree or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.