UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — City Council will consider a series of programs in which federal CARES Act money would go towards helping keep people in their homes in what is expected to be a coming time of housing crisis, and to keep small businesses afloat.
During an online Zoom council meeting held Monday (Sept. 21), Economic Development Director Susan Drucker and City Planner Brendan Zak told council about programs to help residents and business owners who find themselves in financial difficulty due to the coronavirus. The programs would assist small business owners, those needing help paying their mortgage or rent, and provide money for paying utility bills.
The goal is to put local help in place before the federal moratorium on foreclosures and evictions expires at year’s end.
Finance Director Dennis Kennedy said University Heights has received a total of $698,000 in CARES Act money, and has hopes of receiving more. Money not used, under federal rules, must be returned. Drucker said it is the city’s intention to use the money so that none of it has to be sent back back.
The guidelines, said Law Director Luke McConville, state that the money must be encumbered by Oct. 15, and must be spent by Dec. 30. CARES Act money must be spent on COVID-related matters.
“I want to have something in place so we don’t have to give any money back,” Drucker told council. “We want to use every dollar the city receives of COVID. So, this way, there are some programs prepared and ready to go, should council approve.”
The city sees as necessities the programs designed to help residents meet their bills.
“The fact that we haven’t had a foreclosure or eviction explosion is only because of the directives that have kept people in their homes to a certain point,” said Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan. “And the thing is, at some point, those directives will come to an end, and right now there is no provision out there for what is to happen other than to make people instantly become current (with mortgage, rental and bill payments) which, if they could have kept current, they would have been current.
“What I fear, and what we should all be concerned about, is a housing crisis that looms in this city and, really, across the country. But here, we’re in a position to really do something about it, and that is why is is important that we got this in front (of council) so we could try to head it off.”
Councilman Justin Gould agreed with Brennan. “Those of us with experience with federal programs know that here is no amount of preparation that is too much when it comes to being ready to implement them and adapt them.”
Zak said that United Way 211 data, through August, shows one city resident calling for mortgage assistance, and 24 calling for rental payment help. He said that Auction.com is predicting an increase in foreclosures in the next year at roughly 60 percent of the level of the Great Recession peak in the third quarter of 2010.
“I’m looking at these programs as a way to keep residents in their homes, keep residents in the city,” he said. “Obviously, all that I’m talking about are projections and cannot be guaranteed. But if these come true, we are looking at a major foreclosure crisis again and potentially another recession or economic downfall.”
Zak said that the city’s housing department would be looking to set an application deadline of Oct. 15, and to start the program Oct. 30.
The programs would offer a maximum grant of $4,000 for mortgage or rental assistance. It would also offer as much as $1,000 to help pay utility bills.
“I think it’s important that we, as a city, are looking at the issues you’ve raised,” Gould told Zak. “If the economic downturn of 2008 taught us anything it’s that we need to be prepared for the effects that our neighbors losing their homes have on our community as a whole, because foreclosures and evictions are not things that are had in a vacuum. They affect the ability to raise income taxes, the ability to have a thriving, vibrant, safe community, independent of the horrific effect they have on the individuals experiencing them.”
McConville expressed concerns that the program helping renters in their dealings with landlords would meet state laws and said that work might have to be done to determine a creative way to help renters.
“We know it’s going to happen,” Gould said of coming foreclosures. “We can see what’s going to happen in the new year, and any way to get in front of it, I think, would be helpful, even if it was a (Shaker Municipal) Court-imposed mediation program where you try to keep people in their homes. But we just know the flood is coming and I dread it.”
Meanwhile, Drucker is asking for $50,000 for the program to assist small businesses. Each would be eligible for a grant of up to $5,000 in assistance. Rules would make it necessary for the person who applies for grant money to be a business’s majority owner, and to own a business that is physically located in University Heights. The person seeking help would have no cash delinquencies, and the business must be in existence for at least 12 months and must have had positive revenue, pre-COVID. The business owner would have to tell the city what the money would be used for.
An internal city committee would review the applications. Drucker said that the act of applying will not guarantee a business owner financial assistance.
The ordinances were all sent to council’s Building & Housing Committee for further discussion. That committee’s chairperson, Councilwoman Barbara Blankfeld, said that the committee would meet in early October.
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