Millions of dollars are available to help Wisconsin residents who face housing instability through the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance (WERA) program.

It’s something Millie Rounsville, chief executive officer of Northwest Community Services Agency, wants people to know as the federal moratorium on evictions is set to end July 31.

“The biggest thing we’ve been struggling with is we know we’re missing people because they think they’re not eligible,” she said.

The WERA program launched in late February with a pot of more than $322 million available to all counties. The program can provide up to 15 months of rental assistance for households affected by the pandemic. It can also be used for lot rental, late fees, security deposits, utilities and, Gov. Tony Evers announced last month, internet access.

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Rounsville said $42 million of the funds had been spent as of July 14, with $2.2 million distributed statewide that week alone.

The majority of applicants statewide have been the very poor, those who make 30% or less of the county median income. About 60% of those who have been served fall into that income category, but Rounsville said the program has a wider reach.

Anyone who makes up to 80% of the county median income qualifies for the help. In Douglas County, that equates to a monthly income of $3,563 for a one-person household, or $5,088 for a household of four.

Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com
Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com

An eviction notice is not required to apply for help.

“You just have to be behind or just know that you’re going to struggle with the next month,” Rounsville said. “So if you know you don’t have the money to pay your August rent, you should apply now.”

Residents who received help through the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program last year can also qualify for WERA funds.

Anyone with tight finances who has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is eligible to apply. Impacted by COVID-19 covers a number of situations, from people who lost their jobs and had their hours reduced at work, to those who had to leave a job to stay home to care for children.

Most people apply for the program online, emailing screenshots of pay stubs and providing electronic signatures. It can also be done via phone or fax, Rounsville said.

The funding offers a chance for those impacted by the pandemic to catch up.

“When you fill out your application, Stacey’s going to work with you to get you current on your rent, and then they’re going to issue the payment to your landlord for the next three months,” Rounsville said. “It will bring you current and now you’ve got the next three months covered. You can kind of breathe a little and then see where you're going to be after that.”

People can reapply for three more months of help if needed, until they reach the 15-month limit.

Rounsville said they've sent applications to property management companies and human services agencies. Several local landlords have been advising their tenants of the program.

“I wish more would do that,” Rounsville said. “Landlords don’t want a turnover either. If you’ve got a good tenant that’s just been struggling with rent, I mean certainly get them caught up and brought current and they stay in their unit and the landlord’s still collecting the rent payments.”

Numbers collected by the Wisconsin Eviction Data Project show the number of eviction judgments in 2020 and 2021 have remained comparable to 2019. The number of eviction filings yo-yoed in 2020, rising higher than the 2019 number in some months — January, February and May through July — but dipped lower on others. To date, eviction filings in 2021 have been consistently lower than in 2019.

Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com
Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com

Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency has connected people in the five counties it covers to help through the program. The amount of assistance flowing to the area, which includes Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas, Iron and Price counties, has been growing.

The first week, Rounsville said, the program provided $5,300 to six households. State reports show that the agency provided $128,378 to 35 households the week of March 31. Two months later on the week of May 26, the agency distributed $304,211 in WERA funds to 79 households. The most recent week on record, the week of July 14, the agency distributed $420,746 to 108 households, benefitting 236 people.

"That's quite impressive," Rounsville said.

There is additional rental assistance available for Superior residents, as well, through the city's enhanced Community Development Block Grant.

Visit Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency, 1118 Tower Ave., Monday through Thursday; call 715-392-5127; or email sjohnson@northwest-csa.org for more information.

Additional information on the WERA program is also available online through the Department of Administration.