The City of Lawton has amended criteria for its allocation from the federal CARES Act, allowing some residents to apply for help with utility bills and their rent.

Earlier this year, the city’s housing and community development division was notified Lawton would receive $419,193 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) COVID-19 funding through the CARES Act, federal legislation providing money to governmental entities and others to offset the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those COVID-19 funds were in addition to the city’s normal allocation of CDBG and HOME Program funding, division supervisor Christine James said.

City officials analyzed their options, then announced in June they would designate the CDBG COVID-19 funding to a program that helps qualified residents cover overdue utility bills. In addition to meeting qualifications as low-income under federal guidelines, residents also had to be in danger of having utility services cut off because of non-payment.

Because the Lawton Housing Authority already had a mechanism in place that provided such assistance to residents, the city designated its funding to that agency. James said that as of Aug. 13, the balance of that account was $281,196.87.

City officials said in June that the program would be analyzed later in the year, with an eye toward redirecting remaining funding to other COVID-19-related issues. That action came Tuesday, when the City Council completed the process of amending the Annual Action Plan, the document City of Lawton officials set each year to tell the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development how they will spend CDBG and HOME Program allocations.

James said Tuesday’s action amends the action plan to allow the CDBG COVID-19 funds to be allocated for rental assistance, which also will be handled by the Lawton Housing Authority because it has a rental assistance program already in place. In fact, James said the suggestion for the new funding allocation came from those experts.

“The housing authority asked us if we could expand that (funding) to include rental assistance,” she said, explaining the City of Lawton initially “picked up” utility assistance in June because other agencies already were handling rental assistance. “Other funds are running low, so the housing authority would open up this to rental assistance.”

She said the action wasn’t unexpected, as residents continue to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No one is sure what the future holds,” James said, adding Lawton has two years to spend its COVID-19 allocation and, because she doesn’t anticipate residents still having utility bill issues over two years, city officials probably will consider other possibilities for the money. “We will shift to something else related to COVID, to be able to get it (the funds) spent in those two years.”

So, while the original program was designated to provide assistance to low-income residents with overdue gas, electric and water bills, it now will include those in danger of eviction because of unpaid rents.

As with utility help, qualified residents must provide proof, such as an eviction notice.

“They can’t come in for help with rent next week,” James said, explaining rent must be “past due.”

There is no cap, but residents can only be helped once. And, as with the utility program, qualified residents must meet the federal definition of low income, which ranges from less than $37,600 for one person to less than $53,700 for a family of four.

James said there are requirements for the COVID-19 money, meaning municipalities must spend it on activities that meet specific criteria.

“We were pretty limited on what we could spend the money on,” she said, noting, for example, Lawton didn’t need a temporary hospital or other things that larger cities needed, but its residents did need help with utility bills and rent. “It’s a good niche for us.”

Information is available by calling the Lawton Housing Authority, (580) 595-0063. Applications are available at the office at 609 SW F.

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