Providing rent, mortgage and utility assistance to those struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as the top priority in a community survey seeking input on how the city of Columbia should spend more than $737,000 in federal relief money.

Of the 270 people who responded to the survey, which was conducted by the city’s Housing Programs Division, 81.3% said rent, mortgage and utility assistance was either a high or very high priority. That was followed closely by ensuring food security for low- to moderate-income families (77.5%) and providing assistance to the homeless population (76.5%).

Nearly 73% listed providing internet access for low- to moderate-income families with children as either a high or very high priority, while 69.6% put supporting nonprofit organizations that serve people in need at or near the top of the list.

The Housing Programs Division on Thursday issued a request for proposals from organizations interested in tapping the federal money to provide such services. The Community Development Block Grant money is earmarked for COVID-19 relief and comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

This is the third round of federal assistance the city has received to ameliorate the impact of the pandemic. The city used much of the first two rounds of money to support small businesses.

The Housing and Community Development Commission reviewed the results of the survey and the request for proposals Wednesday with Housing Programs Director Randy Cole. Commissioners bounced back and forth between the topics listed, with housing taking center stage. Commissioner Barbara Jefferson said she was surprised to find that vocational training for the city’s workforce ranked so highly.

Jefferson also raised concerns about how the survey would be affected by the recent rise in COVID-19 numbers. Cole told her that the survey was still open.

The request for proposals issued Thursday established a range of spending the city will consider for each of the priorities. Those ranges are:

  • 25% to 50% for rent, mortgage and utility assistance.
  • 20% to 40% for food security.
  • 17.5% to 35% for programs and services benefiting the homeless.
  • 12.5% to 25% for providing internet access.
  • 11% to 22% for vocational training.

“It’s important we get the funds out quickly,” Cole said, and commissioners agreed.

The commission and the Housing Programs Division has established a timeline for deciding how to spend the CARES money and for doling it out. Its funding recommendations are subject to the approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A timeline presented to the Columbia City Council at its Oct. 5 meeting estimated the money would be distributed in May.

Housing Programs will host a Zoom meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday for those interested in applying for some of the money. Those who want to attend can sign up online.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
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