Now that emergency rental assistance has passed, where will it go?

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Congress included $25 billion for emergency rental assistance in the latest coronavirus stimulus package; but where is the emergency rental assistance going, and how will it be distributed?

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has developed estimates for what each state will receive. The largest states will likely get more than a billion dollars each for emergency rental assistance, while eighteen states are projected to receive the minimum amount of $200 million.

As the state with the largest population, California should receive more $2 billion, while the next three largest states (Texas, Florida, and New York) should get more than $1 billion each. You can see NLIHC’s allocation estimates for all the states here.

The legislation sets aside funds for tribal governments and U.S. territories, in addition to each state. The remaining $23 billion is divided between the states and the District of Columbia based on population. The minimum amount a state can receive is $200 million. Local jurisdictions with more than 200,000 population can ask for a direct allocation from the Treasury, which is carved out of their states’ total allocation.

Renters earning 80% or less of Area Median Income (AMI) are eligible for emergency rental assistance. State and local governments must give priority to renters with incomes of 50% AMI or less. Renters need to provide a self-certification to landlords that they have a loss of income related to the coronavirus pandemic, and are facing housing instability or at risk of homelessness.

Emergency rental assistance can cover back rent and utilities, as well as rent and utilities going forward. Low-income renters can receive a total of 12 months of assistance, but can request up to three additional months if needed.

These funds are typically paid to landlords. However, some landlords have refused to participate in state and local emergency rental assistance programs. In these cases, emergency rental assistance programs can provide the assistance directly to tenants so that they can make their own payments to their landlords.

As the pandemic began to worsen, many state and local governments set up or expanded their own rental assistance programs to help people avoid homelessness. When CARES Act funding became available last spring, local governments used it to boost their programs. However, demand has been so great around the country that most of these programs ran out of funds quickly.

NLIHC has looked at hundreds of emergency rental assistance programs operating around the country. It has put out a report that highlights the things that make these programs work better. The report, Best Practices for State and Local Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, was written for people who design and run these programs. It makes recommendations that will help programs get rental assistance more quickly to the people who need it the most. It also points out practices that make it harder for low-income renters to get emergency rental assistance.

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It is strongly recommended in the report that the application process for emergency rental assistance be simplified and streamlined. Many current programs have complicated application forms or have documentation requirements that put a burden on low-income renters. NLIHC researchers found that some applicants did not even apply for help when they ran into these obstacles.

The report recommends that programs use online applications as much as possible to improve access to rental assistance. Programs should also offer alternative ways to apply, like by phone or mail. This allows low-income renters with limited internet access to still apply for assistance.

Also, the report says that programs should use self-certifications as much as possible. This will ease the burden on low-income renters to come up with all of their documentation. Tenants should be able to self-certify that they have a coronavirus-related hardship, an income loss, or are at risk of homelessness.

When documentation is required, the report says that programs should be flexible about the documents that they will accept from applicants. For example, loss of income could be verified by pay stubs, a letter from the employer, or tenant bank statements.

Programs around the country will be flooded with more requests than they can possibly fund at this time. The report suggests that programs use weighted lotteries to select which applicants receive emergency rental assistance. Lotteries are more fair than first-come, first-served systems. Many renters with the lowest incomes have limited internet access or transportation options. A weighted lottery also gives those with the lowest incomes a better chance of being selected.

The new funds will not be nearly enough to meet the need. Housing experts estimate that at least $100 billion is needed to help all the tenants behind on their rent because of the pandemic. President-elect Biden has called this just a downpayment, and will include more emergency rental assistance in his first pandemic relief proposal.

Biden has just proposed a much larger $1.9 trillion relief package that includes $30 billion more for emergency rental assistance. Low-income renters and affordable housing supporters will need to push their members of Congress after Biden takes office. With a slim majority in the Senate, lawmakers need to know that more emergency rental assistance is needed. As the pandemic drags on, rental assistance will help people stay in their homes and landlords stay afloat.

Estimated Allocation by State

State/TerritoryEstimated Funds
New York$1,294,953,000
Tribal Areas$800,000,000
North Carolina$698,154,000
New Jersey$591,255,000
South Carolina$342,731,000
Puerto Rico$325,000,000
District of Columbia$200,000,000
New Hampshire$200,000,000
New Mexico$200,000,000
North Dakota$200,000,000
Rhode Island$200,000,000
South Dakota$200,000,000
West Virginia$200,000,000
Other Territories*$75,000,000
*Other Territories includes American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands.
All figures provided by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.