So Young applied to the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program, or RAMP, which is supposed to disburse federal funds to state residents in need. But though she and her husband submitted reams of documents and made multiple calls to the RAMP hotline, Young said, the money never arrived.
“Hello I’m still waiting on a response from you guys,” her husband, Tarus Young, wrote in August through the program’s online portal, according to screenshots shared with The Washington Post. “My landlord has ordered to put my things outside and I’m clueless to where my daughter and I will go!”
Across America, state distribution of federal cash meant to help people facing eviction during the pandemic has been uneven and slow. But Mississippi’s program has been one of the more problematic. More than seven months after Congress and former president Donald Trump created the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Mississippi had spent only 11 percent of $186.7 million in first-round funding according to the Treasury Department, compared with a national average of 32 percent.
Mississippians are clamoring for the funds: 9,000 people applied to the program in August, up nearly 130 percent from the entire period from March 29 to July 31, said Scott Spivey, executive director of the Mississippi Home Corporation (MHC), the state’s quasi-governmental housing agency charged with running the program.
But tenants and local advocates say it can take more than a month to get a response from the program, which is administered in part by Balch & Bingham, a politically connected Alabama law firm. Hired through a no-bid $3.8 million contract by MHC, Balch & Bingham plays a key role in reviewing and scrutinizing aid applications, a process critics say leads to enormous delays.
Aid applicants and advocates say these delays are a primary reason the program has failed to reach more people. And they question the selection of the law firm, which also represents landlords in tenant disputes and says on its website that “commercial landlords look to Balch for representation in evicting tenants and collecting unpaid rent.”
No Treasury Department rule prohibits this. Scott Spivey, executive director of the housing corporation, defended the program and the selection of Balch, saying that delivering aid in Mississippi is “particularly difficult,” with many landlords reluctant to accept the rental assistance and a largely rural population with limited access to technology. Balch, he said, was chosen on the basis of its track record in working with the agency, and not due to its political connections.
Spivey said that the disbursal of aid picked up dramatically in September, and that over 8,000 Mississippians had already received help.
A Balch spokeswoman, Julie Wall Khoury, said the firm plays only a “supporting role” in managing the rental aid program, and said there is “no conflict of interest” between the program’s beneficiaries and the firm’s clients.
Tebrica Young’s family was evicted in August and are now living in Young’s mother’s house, where they share a single bedroom. Spivey and Young disagree about why her family never received help. He said she didn’t get her paperwork in fully, while Young says she did everything right, providing screenshots of documents submitted to back up her claims. Khoury declined to comment on the Youngs’ case.
While the Youngs have been left waiting, Balch has reaped millions of dollars in fees from the federal emergency relief program. Balch and MHC agreed to a $3.8 million budget for the firm to help administer the program, including a charge of $135-per-hour for the review of 30,000 applications, according to a March letter from Balch to MHC. In addition to the review of applications, Balch’s role in the rental relief program was meant to include helping draft rules and regulations, “designing and overseeing program administration,” and training staff, according to the letter.
Khoury described the firm’s role differently, though. She said that nearly 100 Balch attorneys and staff have worked on the program, and that its role is “currently limited to compliance review of applications” and providing legal advice on state and federal guidelines.
“Balch & Bingham does not manage the RAMP program, nor do we administer ERA funds,” Khoury said in an email.
Legal professor Joshua P. Davis, director of the University of San Francisco Center for Law and Ethics, said he doesn’t see any rule violation in Balch’s actions, but could understand why homeowners and tenants might be frustrated at its selection by the state.
“There may be a legitimate policy concern there. That doesn’t mean there is a formal ethics violation,” he said. “Presumably the goal should be not just to prevent fraud but to make sure that people get the money they need and get it in a timely fashion.”
Balch, which represents numerous corporate clients from an array of industries, has a long history serving as a consultant and adviser to the Mississippi state government. Mississippi agencies have awarded Balch nearly 70 contracts worth more than $35 million for work since 2014, according to a review of state procurement data by The Post. It won the housing aid contract through a no-bid process because officials felt it had a strong track record.
The flow of billions of federal pandemic relief dollars aimed at curbing economic pain across the country appears to have been particularly lucrative for the firm, as it secured several aid-related contracts over the past 18 months and ultimately scored more than $6 million in fees, according to state procurement records and contract documents provided by MHC. Balch has a line of business representing commercial landlords, according to its website, and a Post review of legal filings shows that Balch represented a lender pursuing foreclosure against a family as recently as 2020 — even as it helped administer a separate federally funded program aimed at preventing foreclosures.
“It’s not really helping people to stay housed in the way that we need it to,” said Jeremiah Smith, an organizer with 662 Tenants Union, which runs a volunteer hotline that helps people facing eviction or needing rental aid. “It’s clear that decisions have been made in a way that doesn’t prioritize renters.”
The $46.5 billion federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program provided states and counties with wide leeway in how to create and manage their funds to prevent evictions, leading to wildly disparate strategies and results. Some jurisdictions held competitive bid processes, while others quickly awarded the funds under emergency rules. Some chose consulting or law firms to help administer the programs, while others turned to nonprofits specializing in helping people at risk of homelessness.
States and counties receiving funds face a tight timeline, as they must obligate 65 percent of funds by Sept. 30 or risk losing them, per Treasury Department guidelines — meaning Mississippi’s funds could soon be reallocated. While many states improved their programs’ efficiency in August, Treasury data shows that Mississippi disbursed fewer funds in August ($6.9 million) than it did in July ($9.2 million).
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), whose district includes much of western Mississippi, questioned MHC’s efforts to help struggling tenants through the program.
“The program’s poor performance, along with high legal fees, is a testament to Mississippi Home Corp’s utter failure to meet congressional intent of emergency rental assistance,” Thompson said in a statement to The Post.
Khoury did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thompson’s statement. Spivey said MHC was “surprised” by Thompson’s statement, and that the agency had been in “constant communication with his office.” Fees paid to Balch are “well within” standard administration costs, he said.
Khoury has defended the firm’s credentials.
“Balch & Bingham has extensive experience advising government clients on compliance with federal grants through the entire grant’s lifecycle and our attorneys are well versed in the challenges that often arise as entities work to comply with the often complex and confusing laws that govern federal grants,” she wrote in a statement.
Some of the programs, particularly those serving businesses in need of aid rather than individuals, have had success.
After Congress and Trump passed a huge federal relief law known as the Cares Act in March 2020, the Mississippi Development Authority contracted with Balch on two programs: an emergency fund for small businesses struggling from the pandemic and a rent relief program for landlords.
With Balch’s help, the agency said it approved approximately 20,000 “Back to Business” small business grants in the program’s first 120 days. Again with Balch as a contractor, the agency then approved 2,355 rental assistance grants to landlords in 45 days.
While Balch competed through a normal contracting process for the small business program, submitting the least expensive of three bids according to Craft, Mississippi took a different approach when it came time to distribute $186.7 million in its first round of federal emergency rental assistance.
Instead of continuing to administer aid through the development authority, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) directed MHC to create the rental relief program, RAMP.
At stake were “the possible consequences of thousands of Mississippians facing homelessness or unstable or unsafe living conditions,” according to a resolution presented to the board. A federal ban on some evictions had already come under legal attack (eventually being struck down by the Supreme Court on Aug. 26).
Spivey, the housing corporation’s executive director, “determined that the most efficient way to establish, implement and administer the program is to work with its existing contractors and partners,” according to the resolution. Chris Waddell, a Balch attorney, already served as MHC’s counsel, and Balch had just wrapped up work on another MHC aid program at the end of 2020. The board voted unanimously in a Feb. 10 meeting to hire Balch to help create RAMP.
“As such, there was no request for proposals,” Spivey wrote in an email to The Post. MHC did speak with other potential vendors, but those organizations wanted to administer the entire program, while Balch is only providing specific services, he said.
Advocates for at-risk tenants said they are concerned by how long it is taking the state program to process applications and send out aid.
Gwen Bouie-Haynes, executive director of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said her organization has been working in concert with other groups to hold clinics across the state, to help people in rural areas fill out paper applications that are then sent onward to the MHC.
“It does seem to be taking too long for the processing of the application,” Bouie-Haynes said. “It is rather challenging for the community with the processing because the question becomes, when will I know if my application has been approved or not?”
She said her organization would have competed for the contract if it had been put out for a competitive bid. “We do know how to get into communities to build relationships to get things done, and I just very definitely think there might have been some opportunities there,” she said.
Mississippi is far from the only state to eschew normal contracting rules to identify renters, process applications and distribute funds. Texas, for instance, under Gov. Greg Abbott (R), has created one of the most efficient programs in the country in part by suspending procurement guidelines and putting its program in the hands of three contractors.
But while Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and dozens of counties had already distributed half or more of their first-round funds to struggling renters and on other emergency housing priorities, at least 20 — including Mississippi — had spent less than 11 percent as of Aug. 30.
Present at the housing corporation’s Feb. 10 board meeting, according to the minutes, were Balch partners Waddell and Lucien Smith. Smith is the former chief of staff to Gov. Phil Bryant (R), for whom Reeves served as lieutenant governor before being elected to succeed Bryant in 2019. Smith also served as chair of the state’s Republican Party until last September. His Balch biography says he represents “clients from a range of sectors, including insurance and healthcare, as well as regulated utilities and interstate pipelines.”
Spivey said MHC responded to the challenges of distributing rental aid in Mississippi by streamlining required documentation and hosting events around the state to allow Mississippians to apply and ask questions in person.
“Balch has been and continues to be an excellent partner and is not responsible for delays regarding the distribution of ERA funds in Mississippi,” Spivey wrote.
Balch has also not shied away from helping pursue foreclosures, even while working on the state’s behalf to prevent such actions. For over a decade, Balch has helped administer Mississippi’s Hardest Hit Fund, another federally funded program, which initially helped pay struggling people’s mortgages in the wake of the Great Recession. Mississippi reactivated its program in 2020, distributing nearly $4.5 million from July to Dec. 31, 2020, to help hundreds of homeowners hang on to their houses, according to a Treasury Department inspector general report.
But at the same time as it was helping to administer the program, Balch went to court on Dec. 28 on behalf of a nonprofit lender to take over a home in Picayune, Miss., as part of a foreclosure case, according to county court filings.
The owners, Jennifer and Christopher Gilbert, had fallen behind on their mortgage payments in 2020, and been foreclosed on in November but had not yet left the home, the court documents stated. Balch helped win the case, forcing the family out of the home in April.
In a phone interview, Jennifer Gilbert, 36, said the family fell behind on the mortgage payments after her husband was laid off. He then went to jail for trying to purchase methamphetamine, leaving her to fend for their children. Before they were kicked out of the home, Gilbert tried to make some of the payments they owed, but was told it was too late.
She and her children are now staying at her uncle’s house.
“I’m breastfeeding a baby on a couch where everybody can see. There’s no privacy,” Gilbert said. “If they were supposed to try to help, then they didn’t at all.”
Balch spokeswoman Khoury defended the firm’s decision to continue representing landlords and lenders while helping to administer relief programs. She said the firm’s attorneys had volunteered 300 hours of their time pro bono to support MHC.
Whether or not the state housing corporation and Balch are able to improve the state program, another program in Mississippi is having better success with a different approach.
Harrison County, which includes Biloxi, is one of two in the state that received funds directly from the Treasury Department to start its own programs. The program in Harrison had distributed 89 percent of its funds by the end of August, according to Treasury data.
The county’s program is run by Open Doors Homeless Coalition, a local nonprofit that works to prevent homelessness in southern Mississippi. The group won the contract in a competitive bid process that attracted eight applications from local and out-of-state groups, said county administrator Pamela Ulrich.
“We’re real pleased with the program itself and how many people it’s assisted,” Ulrich said. “They just ran with it and they were out in the community and they knew where to go to get those people and get those applications.”
Mary Simons, executive director of Open Doors, said her organization had existing relationships with local landlords and property managers, which helped them scale up quickly. By the time they won the county contract, they had already developed a waiting list of people who had contacted them, worried they would soon be evicted.
“We were out doing community events, so we could connect directly with people, and that has been our strength,” she said.
Alice Crites and Alyssa Fowers contributed to this report.