For more than a month now, $150,000 in federal funds for Sevier County wildfire victims has sat largely untouched, as more than 130 families are living in motels, hotels or with friends and family.
The money comes in the form of four Emergency Solutions Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to help people who lost their home in the deadly wildfires of late November.
"That grant is available for the first month's rent, deposit and the electricity deposit," Sevier County Emergency Management Director John Mathews explained.
In early December, HUD provided a $100,000 grant to the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (which the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless (TVCH) is tasked with disbursing), along with a $25,000 grant to the Helen Ross McNabb Center's Blount County location, $25,000 to Sevier County's Helen Ross McNabb location and $25,000 to Family Promise of Blount County.
Those dollars came with rules, however.
"To utilize the grant money," Mathews said, "the apartment we put these folks into has to be a Fair Market Rent. There are some apartments available in Sevier County; they're just above that Fair Market Rent."
HUD designates what constitutes Fair Market Rents (FMRs). Because Sevier County has a shortage of affordable housing, the four non-profits have not been able to place many families in apartments or homes using that grant money.
Melanie Cordell is the TVCH CEO. She said the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA), along with Sevier County officials, issued a joint request to HUD, that the federal government waive the FMR requirement in this case, given Sevier County's housing shortage.
They sent that letter on Jan. 17, even enlisting the help of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tennessee) to talk to HUD on their behalf.
One month later, on Feb. 17, they received good news.
"The waiver was approved today!!" Cordell informed WBIR 10News Friday morning. "We can use federal dollars to go over FMR and get this community stably housed thanks to HUD, THDA, and the East TN Foundation!"
While Sevier County officials and Cordell waited for word on their wavier request, they were also sitting on additional dollars to help displaced wildfire victims. A donor through the East Tennessee Foundation has agreed to pay half of each month's rent for a year, for every displaced household. That offer had to sit in limbo, pending HUD's reply.
Now, Cordell said, "we have identified 131 households that we are going to be able to rapidly rehouse, very quickly, in Sevier County, using this waiver, and we are extremely excited about it."
Between the HUD grant money and the East Tennessee Foundation donor, displaced families will only have to pay - for a year's lease - half of the rent for months two through 12, plus utilities.
Prior to the wavier approval, TVCH and the three other non-profits were only able to find FMR housing for about 10 families. After that, the FMR housing stock dried up, Cordell said.
That left about $150,000 of the total $175,000 in grant money sitting in limbo.
Currently, Cordell said, 40 families are staying in hotels or motels, 26 are staying with family or friends and two families are literally homeless. Those 68 are among the 426 households initially identified as needing housing. Of those, 186 have since been permanently housed, Cordell said - some in Sevier County, others outside of it.
The remaining households fall into a number a different categories. For example, one told the coalition they don’t want permanent housing, Cordell said. 13 contact phone numbers were disconnected, seven were wrong numbers. TVCH calls each household once every other week.
"A lot of families that have been displaced have been staying it motels and with families and friends, and we just have been on hold for the past month, really trying to get these families rapidly rehoused," Cordell said. "Living in motels, you're not able to cook properly, and, you know, these kids are not having proper meals, and so now we're going to be able to get them housed and they're going to be able to eat properly, they're going to have a much greater room to be able to play in, and so it's a great situation."
HUD sets the Fair Market Rents on a county-by-county basis, "and that is set for economic factors, you know, different variables, and you're looking at one-bedroom, two-bedroom, three-bedroom, different rates for each county," Cordell said.
Click HERE to check out FMRs in your area. A two-bedroom apartment in Knoxville, for example, should go for $811, HUD says. A two-bedroom apartment in Sevier County, however, should only be $710, and in the Nashville area, that two-bedroom FMR jumps to $959.
With this waiver, Cordell said, some families will get to move into apartments or rental homes very quickly.
"We know that we've got about 30 units that we can go ahead and quickly move in, yes, within a week," she said.
Now, she said, her coalition needs Sevier County landlords to call and alert them to available rental units.
"We need year leases, you know, for these individuals," she explained.
Landlord can call the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless at 877-488-8234.
"We're going to be providing case management for these families, along with the Mountain Tough Recovery Team," she said.
The Mountain Tough Recovery Team is a non-profit organization forming to provide support to wildfire survivors.
"These folks that still have needs that have not been met," Mathews said, "either through FEMA, the Red Cross or an organization that has been here to help in the disaster, we want those folks to go to one place for the next three to five years, however long it takes, to be able to get their needs met."