Local News

3,100 renters await funds from Wake County's COVID rental assistance program

Posted April 22, 2022 5:06 p.m. EDT
Updated April 22, 2022 6:20 p.m. EDT

Millions of dollars in help are available, and yet thousands of Wake County renters remain in limbo.

Wake County’s House Wake! Program serves as a housing assistance program and has helped thousands of people affected by the pandemic cover rent and utilities.

While the program stopped taking applications on Jan. 24, the system is so backlogged that only half of the money allocated has been paid out to renters. Contractor Telamon has distributed $37.5 million of the $67.6 million in COVID relief funds.

County data shows the program has paid 4,900 renters and there are 3,100 still waiting for help. The county denied some 2,6000 applicants.

Some people have waited more than six months for funds. It includes Scott Olsen, who pays a monthly rent of $1,900 for a home in Wake Forest.

“It’s no situation anyone would want to be in [themselves],” Olsen said.

Olsen, a father of two, lost his job at the start of the pandemic. He’s back to work now, but he’s behind on his bills. Olsen hasn’t paid rent in full since January.

“[There are] a lot of restless nights,” Olsen said. “It’s a lot of juggling.”

Looking for rent relief, Olsen applied to House Wake! in October 2021. He wasn’t contacted for four months.

Now, he’s been approved for three weeks, but his $4,000 check has yet to arrive.

“Everything is there. Every document,” he said. “Every i dotted, every t crossed, so it’s waiting on disbursement.”

WRAL News asked Telamon Director of Housing Brandon Bell why applicants are still waiting for funds despite the application window closing in January.

“It is not lost on me. I take full responsibility for it,” Bell said. “The buck stops here with me. We have had difficulty maintaining staff and staffing up.”

Bell said Telamon doubled its staff, from 30 to 60. However, reviewing paperwork and verifying renters information takes time.

“We’ve only had a small handful of people that have submitted all of the documentation necessary,” Bell said.

Telamon is processing about 300 applications a week.

WRAL News also asked Bell whether distributing $67.6 million was too big of a job for Telamon.

“I don’t think it was too big for my company,” Bell said. “We had experience dealing with large amounts of federal funds.

“We just had not had experience in need to push out funds at such a fast pace.”

Bell said Telamon is working with Wake County and the city of Raleigh to modify policies and procedures to distribute the money quicker. He acknowledged the need to make sure the quality of the program, accounting and record keeping were not jeopardized.

Email mistake puts some Wake County residents’ personal info at risk

In January, an email mistake by Telamon put personal information at risk for people in Wake County. A case worker for the company sent an email that was supposed to be private but was not. Telamon tried to correct its mistake, recalling the original email, but the damage was already done.

5 On Your Side reached Telamon’s CEO Suzanne Orozco to find out what happened. She blamed the mistake on a new hire who did not put the recipients in a blind cc line.

"Unfortunately, she didn’t follow our protocol," Orozco told WRAL News.

Orozco also apologized. She admits that when one rental assistance applicant replied all, their Social Security benefit verification letter went to all 350-plus email addresses.

Waiting for Telamon to distribute the funds

“The funds are there and they are available but they are not being disbursed timely,” Olsen said.

The delays are leaving struggling renters with uncertain futures.

“We are losing hope,” Olsen said.

Telamon is prioritizing renters who have received eviction notices and those with the lowest income. The company says it’s going to take until July to process all the applications.

“Every time I call it’s a different answer from a different person,” Olsen said. “The system is backlogged but there’s no true transparency.”

Telamon’s call center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays at 919-899-9911. Telemon’s email address is housing@telamon.org.

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