Recommendations to improve racial equity in emergency rental assistance programs

With the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic; Black, Latino, and Native American renters have felt even more housing instability. Photo by Greg Parish at

Before the pandemic, minority renters faced much greater housing challenges than their white counterparts. And with the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic; Black, Latino, and Native American renters have felt even more housing instability. Emergency rental assistance needs to be targeted so that these groups are not left out in the cold.

The NYU Furman Center, the Housing Initiative at Penn, and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition collaborated on survey research to learn more about emergency rental assistance programs around the country. 

The conclusion of that survey notes that there are concerns that emergency rental assistance will not reach those who need it most. Minority and female renters have the greatest needs, but program practices may make it harder for them to get assistance.

The three organizations then published a follow-up report on reaching the most vulnerable renters. The brief provides recommendations to improve racial equity in rental assistance programs. These are strategies that state and local programs can adopt that will make sure minority and women renters with the lowest incomes can stay safe in their homes.

Ensure program funding is allocated based on need.

The emergency rental assistance funds approved by Congress in December of last year are administered by the Treasury Department. The Treasury allocated these funds to states and local governments with a population more than 200,000 to run their own programs. Congress said the funds should be distributed based on population. This is the same formula that was used to distribute CARES Act funds last spring.

In many states, the distribution of renters does not match the overall population distribution. Typically, cities have a larger share of a state’s renters compared with their share of the population. For example, New York City will receive 19% of New York State’s emergency rental assistance. However, it is estimated that New York City has 75% of the state’s renter need. Some of that shortfall may be made up with funds allocated to the state, but those funds are often targeted to rural areas with limited resources.

Target and prioritize assistance to vulnerable groups.

The legislation that authorized coronavirus emergency rental assistance in December says that renters earning 50% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI) should get priority for assistance. In addition, people who have been unemployed for more than 90 days should be prioritized. 

The statute also says that state and local governments can include other priority criteria. Local programs can add a priority for other vulnerable groups, like households with children. They can also prioritize applications from census tracts with high rates of COVID-19.

Programs could also prioritize applications from tenants who rent from small landlords. These property owners often rely on rental income for their retirement, and have fewer savings to weather the economic downturn.

Emergency rental assistance programs should use random lottery systems rather than a first-come, first-served application process. Renters with the lowest incomes are less likely to have access to the technology and internet connections needed to do online applications. Random lotteries, weighted for priorities, give low-income and minority renters the best chance to get assistance quickly.

Invest in outreach and targeting.

Rental assistance programs need to do extra work to reach renters in isolated areas. They also need to reach out in different languages, and connect with people who have limited access to technology.

One way to do this is for state and local programs to partner with trusted community partners for outreach efforts. These are often small nonprofit organizations with strong community connections. This helps them reach renters who may have challenges hearing about assistance or applying for it.

Simplify applications and documentation.

More than 70% of the programs surveyed said that incomplete applications were one of their biggest challenges. Complicated applications discourage applicants, and they are more likely to make mistakes.

Documentation requirements were a big obstacle to getting assistance. Of the programs surveyed, 90% required a current lease to be eligible. This leaves out people in more informal arrangements, like month-to-month leases.

Programs that required proof of lost income because of COVID-19 reported more difficulty getting tenants to complete their applications. Many renters will have a hard time proving that the pandemic is responsible for their loss of income. This includes people who were unemployed before the pandemic began, have language barriers, or work sporadically.

The research brief recommends that programs accept self-certifications for as many items as possible. This not only reduces the paperwork burden on low-income renters, but also reduces the processing time for program staff. 

At the time of the survey, only about one-third of programs used tenant self-certifications. New guidance from the Treasury Department encourages local programs to use self-certifications to ease the document burden.

Emergency rental assistance programs can also work with community groups to help residents fill out application forms. Programs can also be more accessible by accepting e-signatures in place of a traditional signature. Allowing photos of documents instead of only accepting scans will also make it easier for low-income renters to apply for rental assistance.

Monitor and make mid-course corrections.

There were few programs that tracked information about their clients besides the basic information the funding sources required. Some programs have not had the time to review and analyze the data they already have.

Rental assistance programs need to collect information about the application process as well as the program outcomes. It is important to know how many renters received assistance, but it is just as important to know why others have not been served. Data should be broken down by gender, age, race, and ethnicity.

Program staff should review their data periodically. Outreach targeting can be adjusted to connect with renters who have been hard to reach. Forms can be simplified and document requirements streamlined so that there are fewer incomplete applications. 

This research brief highlights what state and local governments can do to make sure emergency rental assistance gets to the people who need it most. Black and Latinx renters, especially women, have been hurt the hardest during the pandemic. Taking racial equity into consideration will help emergency rental assistance meet the greatest needs.

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