The U.S. economy overall may have weathered the storm of Covid-19, but millions of individuals, including thousands in Mercer County, have experienced significant hardship because of income lost due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many unemployed and underemployed renters have fallen behind on their monthly payments, and homeowners have skipped mortgage payments because of dwindling bank accounts.
Fortunately for them, there are a number of programs at the local and county level to help get them through these challenging times.
Hamilton Township has made $650,000 available for rent, mortgage and utility relief through a federal Community Development Block Grant, made possible by the CARES Act passed by Congress in March 2020. Both residents and businesses are eligible for this relief.
And on March 1, Mercer County launched its Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, accepting applications from households in need of assistance with back rent and utility payment relief. The county received more than $10 million from the federal government to use to assist households.
“It’s really scary and unfortunate what people are having to experience, whether they’ve lost a job or had hours reduced due to Covid directly or even indirectly,” Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin said in a phone interview. “As a township, what we’re working on doing through our affordable housing office is try to get out ahead of the problem to the extent we can.”
Martin says in the first 45 days since starting the township assistance program, they approved more than $55,000 in rent and mortgage relief. ”What that tells us is it’s just a small drop in the bucket of the assistance that’s really needed out there,” he says.
At the same time, Martin says that the township might have expected more applications for aid than it had received as of mid-March, and is doing everything it can to reach people who may not be getting the message that aid is available.
“A lot of people who are hurting, one of the first bills they probably forgo is broadband and internet, and that’s been our primary avenue for getting information out,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to try to get creative with outreach. But we’ve also been working with area leaders to have word-of-mouth spread on it. This is why we keep pushing it, and hope one person is approved who tells someone else who gets approved tells someone else. I have no doubt we’ll use all the funds, I just hope we can reach all the people who do need the help.”
Mercer County recently extended its deadline for aid applications to April 5. Marygrace Billek, director of Mercer County Human Services, said in an email that the deadline was extended to ensure that households that are hard to reach had a chance to apply.
The county has also partnered with community organizations to do outreach to people who live in distressed areas of the county to share the information and assist with applications. As of March 22, the county had received 2,380 applications with an estimated total request of $9,018,518.29.
Even though that number is approaching the total amount thus far granted by the federal government, the county is still encouraging people in need to apply.
“Our strategy is to have an oversubscription in applicants, since we hope there is another tranche of funding coming,” Billek said.
Mercer County’s Board of Social Services has also been working with county human services to prioritize applicants who are at or below 50% of the area median income and diverting applicants who are eligible for other assistance programs.
Billek says most of the county’s applicants have been people of color, with the highest number of applications coming from Trenton households, followed by Hamilton, Ewing, Princeton, Lawrence and East Windsor.
“Tenants and landlords are among those in our community who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Brian M. Hughes, Mercer County executive, in a statement. “The Emergency Rental Assistance Program exemplifies how county government manages outside funding to provide a direct benefit to people in need of a helping hand.”
For applications to township assistance programs, go to hamiltonnj.com and click the link for “Mortgage and Rental Relief Assistance Program.”
To apply for the county Emergency Rental Assistance Program, go to mercercounty.org/ERAP Available in English and Spanish.