Joshua Crouse and his 10-year-old daughter, Marley, sit outside their Janesville apartment at the end of July. Crouse is among thousands of Wisconsin residents struggling to pay rent each month because of the economy during the pandemic. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Joshua Crouse and his 10-year-old daughter, Marley, sit outside their Janesville apartment at the end of July. Crouse is among thousands of Wisconsin residents struggling to pay rent each month because of the economy during the pandemic. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Many say the third round of Community Development Block Grant funding is welcome relief, but not enough. 

The announcement Friday of more than $23 million in federal funding to address economic and housing problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin is welcome news to communities, but more will be needed as COVID-19 continues to cause economic disruptions, housing officials across Wisconsin said. 

On Friday U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, (D-Wis.), said those Community Development Block Grant disbursements, part of $5 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars used for CDBG expenditures nationally, will provide much-needed funding to Wisconsin government and other agency officials to assist people adversely impacted by the pandemic. 

“Local officials and the communities they serve need resources to respond to the public health, economic, and housing challenges we are still facing,” Baldwin said in a news release. “This federal support will continue to help local communities quickly respond to this pandemic.”

A total of 18 cities and Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties will receive the $23.47 million CDBG funding. This is the third round of dollars to support communities based on the prevalence of COVID-19 and related economic and housing disruption. The first disbursements of those funds occurred in March and the second was in May.

The largest CDBG awards include $3.36 million in Milwaukee, $1.44 million in Madison, $1.34 million in Waukesha County, and $1.04 million in Dane County.   

Federal dollars to address pandemic-related challenges are in great demand, government officials and others in the state who work with people struggling to maintain housing said. 

Wisconsin’s moratorium on evictions expired May 27. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national moratorium on evictions began Sept. 4 and runs through Dec. 31. But unlike previous COVID-related eviction bans, tenants and landlords are expressing confusion over the guidelines, while attorneys are questioning the authority of the CDC to dictate housing policy. 

In short, it is still unclear how many tenants the CDC eviction ban will actually benefit. 

But without a continuance of that money, they said, providing services to keep people in their homes, find housing for people without it, and assist others facing economic struggles because of the pandemic will prove challenging. 

The prospect of further federal money related to COVID-19 for Wisconsin communities and others across the U.S. is uncertain as Congress remains in a stalemate on that issue. The Democrat-controlled House approved funding extensions in May as part of the HEROES Act, but the Republican-led Senate has proposed lesser dollar levels. 

Tammy Stratz, Wausau community development manager, said the $193,945 CDBG grant the city received will be used to help people remain in their homes. But she said she is uncertain how soon those dollars can be put to use because they must comply with Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, and that agency has provided too little communication regarding CARES Act expenditures so far. 

“Right now I’m very cautious about how soon we’ll be able to spend this money and get it to the people who need it,” she said. 

Some of the CARES Act money the city previously received went to rent and mortgage assistance for people in need, Stratz said. But the need continues, she said, and seems like it could grow in the future as the number of COVID-19 cases in Marathon County and elsewhere in Wisconsin continues to grow. On Sunday the state set a new one-day record, with 1,582 new COVID-19 cases, according to the state Department of Health Services. 

Confirmed cases of the virus are surging in parts of Wisconsin as schools have resumed in-person instruction. State colleges are experiencing virus spikes, prompting UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse to go to an online-only education model for the time being and numerous campuses to quarantine students. 

“With COVID-19 continuing, I see so many different needs, and I don’t know how we address them all,” Stratz said. “It’s so frustrating.”

Needs related to the pandemic are similarly large in Eau Claire, said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the Eau Claire Housing Authority. Eau Claire received $331,145 to address pandemic-related needs after obtaining $316,591 in CDBG money in March.  

While he’s grateful for the latest round of CDBG funding, housing and economic needs in the city related to COVID-19 likely will far exceed what those dollars can pay for, he said. Like Stratz, Johnathan said he has not received details from HUD officials about exactly how that money can be spent. 

“If anything, the needs related to the pandemic are getting worse,” he said. “As the number of COVID-19 cases keeps rising, I can only see the need for continued funding becoming greater.” 

Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, which provides housing to homeless people in Eau Claire, Buffalo, Jackson and Trempealeau counties, received $649,000 in Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program funding to help people stay in their homes. Those dollars were to last through the end of October, but the agency has spent nearly $600,000 of that money already, a sign of struggles people face affording housing amid the pandemic, said Jeanne Semb, housing services coordinator at Western Dairyland. 

“The need for housing and other economic assistance related to the pandemic continues to be huge,” Semb said Monday. “We’re doing our best to provide services to people, but it’s a struggle to do that.”

Addressing the added need for housing and other issues related to the pandemic, on top of the issues her agency already was addressing, is only possible with additional state and federal funding, Semb said. As she watches the number of COVID-19 cases across Wisconsin continue to grow, curtailing an economic recovery, she said she sees the need for housing assistance likely to increase as well. 

“The bottom line is we’re going to need more help to keep people in housing,” she said.