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Last Friday, Bonnie McCauley returned home from the county courthouse in Polson and wondered where she would go if she was evicted.

McCauley, 57, had been living at the Polson Bayview Inn with her two dogs for more than a year after previously spending months sleeping in her truck. She has been trying to find a stable food industry or hospitality job since last fall, she said, and fell behind on her rent payments.     

Making matters more difficult, McCauley fell ill in December with an upper respiratory infection and was only able to start looking for work again, she said, shortly before COVID-19 began to sweep the country. Then, her job prospects dwindled even further.

“All during COVID you couldn’t apply for anything because you couldn’t go nowhere,” McCauley said. “And nobody was open. Nobody was hiring.” 

With thousands of dollars in missed rent stacking up, McCauley applied to the Emergency Housing Assistance program, a $50 million state fund created from the federal CARES Act. The program, managed by the Department of Commerce’s Montana Housing division, is intended for residents who need mortgage or rental assistance as a result of the pandemic and aren’t receiving other federal housing subsidies. 

Also on Friday, McCauley received a grim update from the application reviewers. Her request was denied because her financial hardship, according to the state, is not directly linked to COVID-19.

“It’s a nightmare,” McCauley said. “I just hope someday I wake up and everything’s better.” 

Less than an hour later, McCauley said, police arrived at her door. They instructed her to vacate the premises with all her possessions by the following morning. 

The novel coronavirus has killed 17 Montanans and infected more than 500 since the beginning of March, according to state data — a relatively small number compared to nearly every other U.S. state. But the virus’ effect on Montana’s economy and the personal finances of residents has been widespread. More than 95,000 people filed initial unemployment claims in Montana over the last two months. 

“We are working as diligently and thoroughly to get these funds out as quickly as possible.”

Montana Housing Administrator Cheryl Cohen

As Congress began passing stimulus legislation, state officials and advocates in Montana pushed for swift and widespread housing support. Of more than a billion dollars that Montana received from the CARES Act, roughly $67 million has been earmarked for housing assistance programs run by local, state and federal authorities. The majority of that funding is dedicated to the Emergency Housing Assistance Program.

“The perspective from Montana Housing is, not only does supporting the homeowner [or] the renter directly make sense, but it also supports the economy more broadly,” said administrator Cheryl Cohen about the new program, which is available for households of various sizes making less than $125,000 per year. Payments, which are also calculated based on household income and housing costs, can be up to $2,000 per month.  

To ensure that funds are used for rent and mortgage payments, Cohen said, the program will release the aid directly to landlords and lenders, rather than to tenants and homeowners.

“It’s a due-diligence perspective,” Cohen said. “But that also adds a third party into the application process, and time and correspondence that’s needed.”

That due diligence creates a complex administrative task. On Tuesday evening the Department of Commerce released the first round of funding for 16 applicants, totaling roughly $20,000 out of the $50 million available under the program. (An earlier version of Emergency Housing Assistance used funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Roughly $61,000 in aid was distributed to eligible Montanans in April.)

More than 985 people have applied to the program since it launched on May 7. The urgency to respond to applications and start distributing money, however, has only increased since May 24, when Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive curtailing evictions began to loosen. Now, tenant advocates are concerned that more people will be evicted, even if they may be eligible for state assistance.

“We definitely expected to see a spike,” said Amy Hall, with Montana Legal Services Association, the organization representing Bonnie McCauley in her eviction case. “There’s nothing in the law that forces landlords to wait.” 

Under Bullock’s directive, certain vulnerable tenants are still protected from eviction, such as those who are older than 65 or have serious health conditions, if they can prove they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19 and have been sheltering in place. Based on that criteria, McCauley, who is asthmatic, might be considered a vulnerable tenant. She now has the option to appeal her case in Lake County’s Justice Court.

The owner of the Bayview Inn, Hans Lund, declined to comment on the case, which appears to have proceeded in violation of the governor’s directive. According to court documents, Lund filed an action against McCauley for nonpayment on May 11, when Bullock’s eviction moratorium was still requesting a stay on all eviction proceedings related to nonpayment. Records indicate that McCauley, who was served on May 12, failed to respond within the allotted time span. On May 28, she was ordered to vacate the premises, four days after Bullock’s directive began to phase out. 

Lake County Justice of the Peace Randal Owens, who presided over the case, declined to comment on the proceedings, as did the Polson Police Department, whose officers delivered the notice to McCauley’s door. Dorothy Gilmore, the administrator for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, which normally assists with eviction proceedings, said she was surprised to see that an eviction had taken place on Friday, and that her office was “just not providing that service” since the governor’s directive went into effect.

McCauley is one of nearly 100 applicants who have been denied assistance from the state’s emergency assistance program because they did not meet eligibility requirements, according to the Department of Commerce. Hundreds more Montanans are still waiting for their applications to be reviewed or for aid to be distributed to their landlords and mortgage lenders. 

“We definitely expected to see a spike [in evictions]. There’s nothing in the law that forces landlords to wait.” 

Amy Hall, Montana Legal Services Association

Evaluating whether a tenant or a homeowner is eligible for assistance can present a quandry, said Amy Hall of the Montana Legal Services Association. An applicant who was financially unstable before COVID-19 could be economically disadvantaged by the virus as well, making it difficult to assess whether the hardship is inherent to the pandemic.

“There are so many gray areas,” Hall said. 

“If I were the reviewer, I wouldn’t hold on too tightly to those federal funds early on,” Hall said.

Applicants who are denied emergency assistance have 10 days to appeal their case, according to commerce department communications director Emilie Ritter Saunders. Additionally, she said, Montana Housing has a “responsibility to diligently review every application that comes in the door to ensure applicants meet the qualifications.” Saunders also noted that the program is constantly being analyzed and reviewed in order to be as effective as possible. 

With the eviction moratorium mostly lifted, state employees expect to see an increase of requests for emergency assistance. Fifty-two staffers are currently tasked with reviewing the stream of applications, said Saunders. Many of those are assisting the program in addition to their other job duties. Some have been temporarily moved from elsewhere in state government to help review applications. The program is currently looking for 15 additional volunteer staffers. 

“Applicants are anxious” about the prospect of eviction, Montana Housing’s Cheryl Cohen acknowledged, noting that the number of calls to the program’s helpline (406-841-2840) has increased over the last week. “Those are things that are concerning to us, too.”

Even as reviewers sift through the requests, Cohen said, the department is trying to maintain clear communication with applicants. 

“We absolutely don’t want applicants to feel like their application is caught in a bureaucratic black hole,” she said.

If their application is accepted, renters and homeowners can use the aid for three months worth of delinquent payments dating back to April; they can also apply for extensions beyond June. Given the expected need for assistance, Ritter Saunders said, it’s unlikely the state will have any difficulty spending the $50 million before Dec. 31, the state’s deadline for disbursing the $1.25 billion allocated under the CARES Act.

Both Cohen and Ritter Saunders urged eligible Montanans to gather the necessary documents, including contact information for their landlords or lenders, and apply for the aid. Cohen said she appreciates the patience of applicants who have already submitted requests and are waiting for aid to arrive. “We are working as diligently and thoroughly to get these funds out as quickly as possible,” she said.  

In Polson, Bonnie McCauley has moved back into her truck with her two dogs and has been in communication with Hall about appealing both her eviction case and assistance application. It’s not feasible for her to move in with family members, she said, who either live far away or don’t have the space in their homes.

“So there’s just no room for me,” McCauley said. “Nowhere.”

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.