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Assistance is available for Spokane-area renters, but it's difficult to access

At this stage, there's still little clarity on basic questions regarding much-needed aid for tenants in the Spokane area.

SPOKANE, Wash — The pandemic has put thousands of Spokane area renters in a financial pinch, and with the size of unemployment checks now dramatically decreasing, coming up with rent is only getting harder.

There are rental assistance programs in the works, but they're limited and hard to navigate.

Sunshine Lopez, a caretaker in Spokane, has a daughter with serious health issues that make her vulnerable to the coronavirus. When the pandemic hit Spokane, Lopez took leave to protect her daughter.

"Because of her health, if she were to get COVID-19, she would be a 20 year old on a ventilator. And I wasn't willing to risk that, and I still don't want to risk that now," she said. 

The enhanced unemployment checks had let Lopez keep up with bills for a while, but with the extra CARES Act money running out, she had no choice but to go back to work. And still, she's struggling.

"Going back to work was really scary for me," Lopez said. "I'm only working a little over 20 hours a week, and so right now I just don't have enough money to cover my expenses."

Behind on some bills already, Lopez says there's no way she'll be able to afford next month's rent without some sort of help.

"I'm hoping that I can qualify for an assistance program. But it's hard to qualify," she said.

In recent weeks, local governments in the Spokane area have begun allocating funds to rent assistance programs. But as for how tenants should go about getting that money, it's really difficult to pin down.

Funds are originating from a variety of sources, like the federal CARES Act or the Washington State Department of Commerce.

It's then being handled by a variety of local governments, such as Spokane County, the City of Spokane, and the City of Spokane Valley.

But those in need won't get the money directly from those entities either. Instead it will be handled by various agencies non-profits that each government will pick to run the program.

On top of that,  because things are so fluid at this relatively early stage, we don't know exactly how much money will be available, the effective date or even who will be eligible to get it.

Some programs require recipients make no more than 50% of the area's median income. Other allow up to 80 percent.

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Furthermore, often landlords have to approve the usage of these dollars, since before they can accept the payments they may have to agree to terms such as not evicting the tenant for a certain period of time.

All this means an extremely frustrating process for people looking for much needed help.

 "I don't even know what help is out there," Lopez said. 

"This makes it so much more complicated for tenants, and so I'm hoping that that information will go to a central location," said Terri Anderson with Tenants Union Spokane.

Anderson also says even if people are able to navigate the system, there's still nowhere near enough money in it.

"It's not only supposed to cover past rent that's due, but also current rent and future rent," she said. "You're getting to where people will be paying 100% of their monthly income just on rent."

She says the best hope for meaningful help would be a new federal stimulus with billions in rent assistance. But Congress for now seems to remain in a deadlock.