(KPAX) HELENA — The Gianforte administration is updating a program to distribute at least $44 million in federal rent assistance to Montanans harmed financially by the Covid-19 pandemic – but the money has yet to be authorized by the Legislature.

And that money is part of Montana’s total federal share of $200 million for rental assistance, which would be redistributed to other states if it’s not used by this fall.

Commerce Department officials outlined their plans Monday at a meeting of two legislative budget panels, which draft the budget for two agencies likely to be involved in spending the money.

“The key objective of this program is speed of deployment,” said state Commerce Director Scott Osterman. “Our goal is maximum utilization of the benefit.”

The Legislature has approved a bill that authorizes $17 million of the federal funds for the program this year. However, any additional spending would have to be included in a separate bill, which has yet to be identified or passed.

“There is no question that there are more families struggling with housing instability,” said Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, a group that advocates for low- and moderate-income households. “I don’t think we have a clear sense of the full effect (of the pandemic).”

Last year, Montana distributed only $8.4 million out of $50 million in federal money allocated for “emergency housing assistance” to Montanans who had trouble paying rent or mortgage payments because they’d lost their job during the pandemic.

About 2,500 households got an average of $3,400 each.

Now, the Commerce Department is estimating that $44 million can be spent through June for 7,000 to 8,000 households, to help people pay rent and utilities.

Cheryl Cohen of the state Housing Division said based on Census data, the department believes 10,000 to 30,000 Montana households could face difficulty paying their rent this year, and that as many as 10,000 could face eviction notices when a federal moratorium on evictions expires March 31.

“We think there’s a greater need out there, than perhaps what the applications from last year’s program demonstrates,” she said.

Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, said he hopes the department will make the program more accessible to people across the state, from urban to rural areas.

“There’s a lot of stones in eastern Montana that need to be overturned, so please make sure that those people understand it,” he said.

Cohen said agency officials are planning to hire staff to work solely on the program, and have telephone operators available, in addition to online applications, to make it work more quickly. This time, the program also will allow landlords to submit applications for their tenants, she added.

The agency already has a website, www.emergencyrentalassistance.mt.gov, where applicants can keep track of updates for the program and apply for assistance, and a phone number: 406-841-2840.