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Justice Center Project continues to address evictions with help of funding


The eviction prevention program that was started last year by Polk County Housing Trust Fund and Iowa Legal Aid has now saved 1,700 residents from eviction, and will continue in 2021 because of recent funding.

The program, now named the Justice Center Project, intervenes on the tenant’s behalf when they arrive at the courthouse for their eviction hearing and are faced with paying the amount due or losing their home. Since the program started on Sept. 1, the project has spent $1.27 million preventing evictions, but the number of evictions isn’t slowing down even as money runs out.

Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, said low-income residents and service industry workers continue to come to the Justice Center for help, but more tenants who lost “higher paying jobs” now need help paying rent after using up money they had saved.

According to Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines, an estimated 50% of hospitality workers in Des Moines are not currently working.

“I don’t see a slowdown anytime soon,” Burmeister said.

However, several recent infusions of funding from donations and the COVID-19 relief bill will keep the Justice Center Project moving forward in the months to come.

More than $500,000 was donated to the project by companies and individuals, according to a news release from the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.

“The initiative these funders are taking is amazing. They understand people, who would otherwise be gainfully employed, are unable to make rent due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Burmeister said in the news release.

The project will also benefit from federal funding on its way from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The Des Moines City Council on Monday approved a motion to apply for the program and allocate $100,000 of the money to the Justice Center Project. A second dose of funding came Tuesday morning when the Polk County Board of Supervisors granted $300,000 to the project’s efforts.

The Treasury Department’s program is funded by the COVID-19 relief bill signed in December, which allocated $25 billion to providing rental assistance. Burmeister said the federal program allows tenants “with ongoing hardship to apply for multiple months of rent in advance.” Under this program tenants can receive three months of rent at a time for up to 12 months as long as they are experiencing ongoing financial hardship.

Burmeister said he is hopeful about the program because it expands on what the Justice Center does by covering rent for future months.

“At the Justice Center we’re just playing triage. We can’t pay somebody’s rent in advance,” he said.

In addition to the city of Des Moines, Polk County and Linn County are also eligible to receive funding through the program. Burmeister said between $17 million and $18 million will be allocated to Des Moines and Polk County combined, and the Justice Center wants to find a way to use it that prevents an eviction before it is ever filed.

“We would consider it a success if we could keep tenants housed and actually reduce substantially the number of evictions being filed. So how do we fashion a program that works for both landlords and tenants that can get this rent paid before the landlord starts serving notices?” Burmeister said. He added that new rules associated with the Treasury program should allow landlords to better help their tenants get the funds.

Rules, however, also remain a concern for the future of the Treasury Department’s funds. Burmeister said the situation will change if the Treasury Department issues additional guidance after the money has been sent out to recipients.

“Nobody wants to really spend the money, even if we have it, unless we all know what the rules are,” he said.

Burmeister said he expects the money to be here soon, but the exact date is still unknown. At Monday’s City Council meeting Chris Johansen, neighborhood services director for the city of Des Moines, said city officials hope to have the funds by Jan. 22.

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