Tech Platform for Emergency Rental Assistance Hasn’t Hacked the Problem, Chicagoans Say

In March 2021, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot awarded a $600,000 contract to Unqork, a New York-based cloud computing and software company. The expectation was for Unqork to manage the IT behind the Emergency Rental Assistance program, or ERAP, a coronavirus-era initiative that provides up to 15 months of rental and utility assistance to renters and landlords. ERAP was a long time coming: The program was created in the December 2020 federal bipartisan Covid-19 bill, and the money didn’t begin to distribute until May 2021.

City officials were quick to praise Unqork, with Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara thanking Unqork in June “for its creativity and diligence in creating this customized platform that will allow us to get these funds directly to those who are most in need.”

But Chicago residents and housing advocates say Unqork’s platform has not in fact been able to accelerate benefits distribution.

By the end of August, Chicago had distributed just 16 percent of the $179.8 million in emergency rental assistance designated for the city through the December 2020 coronavirus relief legislation and March’s American Rescue Plan. While that’s higher than the national rate — just 11 percent of the $46.55 billion has so far been distributed by state and local governments — it is well below leaders like Virginia, which has distributed half of its $1.1 billion in total aid. And given that Chicago has nearly twice the poverty rate as the national average (18.4 percent vs. 10.5 percent), the delays can be particularly harmful.

It is unclear whether the delays should be pinned on Unqork’s platform, onerous requirements from the city, or both. But in at least one other case, Unqork was involved in delayed benefits distribution: The state of Iowa, which also uses the Unqork platform, distributed about $9.5 million, or 5 percent, of the first round of coronavirus aid as of the beginning of August. The state’s contract with Unqork was for $880,000, meaning that nearly 10 percent of the total spending under the program for Iowa so far has gone to Unqork.

“It’s really difficult to take a contract with a company that is trying to maximize profits and have terms in the contract that ensure that this program is responsive to the needs of the community and that people are able to access it,” said Shar Habibi, the research and policy director of In The Public Interest, a nonprofit group that advocates for public services. “Oftentimes it seems like the easiest solution is ‘Let’s slap together this tech platform.’ But these are people who are desperate households; some people may need more handholding than others and it’s hard to specify that in a contract with a for-profit IT firm and hold that contractor accountable.”

In some cases, it seems tenants are being improperly denied ERAP aid. Steve Weishampel, a tenant in Chicago who owes three months of back rent, is one such tenant. Weishampel shared documents with The Intercept indicating that he was denied benefits because the city incorrectly estimated his income. Despite Treasury guidelines saying that a household must make less than 80 percent of area median income to receive ERAP payments, Weishampel and his partner were denied benefits. A city employee told them via email that the maximum income was $2,903 for a family of two, when in fact it was $4,903.

A spokesperson for the city of Chicago conceded there “may be a mistake” with Weishampel’s payments. The spokesperson also confirmed that just 15 percent of the 27,000 people who had applied, all of them using the Unqork platform, had received rental aid.

In a statement to The Intercept, Unqork said, “The Emergency Rental Assistance Program is an unprecedented undertaking and an understandably complex process. Unqork is proud of the work our technology has done in helping public sector customers provide a digital process for residents to safely apply for rental assistance during a pandemic, and aggregate those applications so that case workers have the necessary information to allocate funds. Unqork’s rent relief customers have distributed ERAP funding at a rate that is more than double the national average.” The Intercept was unable to independently verify Unqork’s claim that their clients are distributing ERAP funding at a rate double the national average.

Other states have outsourced components of their Emergency Rental Assistance programs, with Mississippi-based accounting firm Horne LLP being a major player in the South. But Unqork — which also manages IT for ERAP in Marin County, California; Hall County, Georgia; and St. Johns County, Florida, as well as half a dozen other locales — brings additional relevance due to one of its investors: Goldman Sachs. In June, Goldman Sachs created a $300 million credit facility for a company making investments in single-family rentals, and the firm played a major role in the 2008 financial and housing collapse. Goldman’s investment in Unqork, then, comes as it sees potential profits from a burgeoning rental market which would gain more prospective tenants in the event of an eviction crisis.

Simone Alexander, who works with the Chicago-based organization Únete La Villita to assist immigrant renters, found that the only way to effectively help renters was by bypassing the Unqork system altogether and working directly with employees at a call center run by a local nonprofit that also received a contract from the city to help administer the program. “Right away I saw issues with the Unqork system,” said Alexander. “You would go through this whole system that determines eligibility. Then it would say ‘log in’ but you hadn’t created a login. So you had to say that you forgot your login. It was a mess. If [non-English speakers and people with limited experience with technology] had to only use the Unqork platform, it would have been insane.”

Chicago and Unqork combined the rental assistance and utility assistance platforms, which Alexander sees as a positive, but it has not come without hiccups. Michael Robin, a tenant who was approved for rental and utility assistance after a two-month wait, told The Intercept that he had his power shut off by the utility company, ComEd, after being approved for assistance.

As 3.5 million Americans face eviction with the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction ban, outsourcing and privatization of essential government functions like benefits distribution could play a role in exacerbating the crisis by creating logjams by which benefits are not distributed. With the CDC eviction moratorium having ended on August 26 and Illinois’s set to end on September 18, failure to disperse ERAP funds in a timely manner could lead to an explosion of both evictions and Covid-19 cases, as a 2020 study from Johns Hopkins researchers found that states that had lifted eviction moratoriums had a 60 percent higher rate of new Covid-19 cases.

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