City creates help fund for rent, utilities

A week after a low-interest small business loan program was approved, the city of Columbus is creating a second assistance program.

But this time, the applicants will be renters who unexpectedly found themselves unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although details are being ironed out and won’t be announced for another week, about $200,000 has been set aside to provide emergency financial assistance to pay rent and utility bills for local residents who need help, said Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development.

The proposed emergency assistance program, which can be used for a maximum of three months by one applicant, was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Columbus Board of Works and Public Safety.

Initially, the city will attempt to limit expenditures on rental or utility assistance to $125,000. However, an additional $75,000 has been set aside in the event that more assistance is required, said Robin Hilber, assistant director of the city’s community development office.

Most of this money comes from a supplemental $183,761 received through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, Hilber said. Originating from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, this supplemental money can be spent on whatever local officials feel they needs to alleviate suffering from the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

In order to raise the total amount available for rental and utility assistance to $200,000, additional money originally earmarked for other purposes was added to the supplemental grant, Ferdon said.

“We have been concerned about all the people who have been furloughed,” Hilber told the Columbus Board of Works and Public Safety. “Although (Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb) says families cannot be evicted at this time, unfortunately those payments are still going to come due.”

During a recent public hearing on this rental assistance program, only two comments were made and “both were very positive,” Ferdon said.

Although community development officials are still developing an application for those seeking rent and utility assistance, Hilber said the paperwork is likely to require more information than rental assistance programs run by local nonprofit agencies.

“But we will be coordinating with United Way and others to reach as many people as possible,” Hilber said.

In regard to the small business loan program approved April 21, Ferdon said her department has received 30 applications for the Columbus INvigorate program as of Monday night.

These small business loans, which range from $5,000 to $25,000, have a six-month deferral of interest and principal payments on the three-year terms. The interest rate after the six-month deferral would be 1%.

Although the deadline to apply for the initial round of small business loans is the end of April, additional rounds are likely to be announced later in the year, city officials said.

Both the small business loan and renter assistance programs are being administered through Administrative Resources Association, a nonprofit governmental association serving many different communities that is headquartered in Columbus.