States are slow getting emergency rental assistance to desperate tenants

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As the pandemic unfolded last spring, state and local governments had to scramble to help renters avoid eviction. State and local governments have used federal funding to create emergency rental assistance (ERA) programs, but many areas have been slow getting this assistance to low-income renters.

Congress provided $25 billion for emergency rental assistance in December. The recently passed American Rescue Plan adds another $21.5 billion. Assistance programs will need to make adjustments and scalde up so that help reaches low-income renters before they are evicted.

When Congress passed the CARES Act last spring, state and local governments were allowed to use the funds for emergency rental assistance. Some state legislatures and local governments provided additional funding for existing programs. Others created new programs to help low-income renters avoid eviction during the pandemic.

Many programs already faced challenges getting rental assistance to those that need it most. With more federal funding now available, it is important to find better ways of reaching low-income renters facing eviction. What has held up rental aid for struggling tenants?

Many states created their emergency rental assistance programs “on the fly,” trying to get help to renters as quickly as possible. There was little guidance from federal agencies on how to set up and run these programs. It is not surprising that many state and local governments experienced delays as they created new safety net programs from scratch.

With little federal guidance, ERA program administrators set up innovative systems, like this Google Form, to efficiently process applicants.

State and local governments also faced challenges because of the tremendous need. In many cases, program staff and online systems were overwhelmed by the number of renters looking for help

In Louisiana, the state announced $24 million for emergency assistance last July, but has only distributed $2.3 million to 956 applicants. Demand was so strong that the online application system shut down within days. The program’s size was a challenge, and was more complicated coming on the heels of a busy hurricane season.

Legislators were often so concerned about fraud, that the programs they designed were not accessible to the people who need them the most. They set eligibility criteria that were hard to meet. Program administrators designed long and complicated applications. The documentation that was required was a burden to low-income renters, especially when facing eviction during the pandemic.

In Louisiana, the lengthy application also contributed to delays in getting assistance to renters. Andreanecia Morris of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, pointed out renter challenges to Associated Press: “Do you think the person who is reaching out to you has a fax machine or a solid enough internet or a printer in the house to handle a 50-page application?”

Survey data from the Housing Initiative at Penn, NYU’s Furman Center, and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition show that complicated applications are a big barrier to helping low-income renters keep their homes. More than 70% of the programs surveyed said that incomplete applications are one of the top challenges in getting assistance to renters.

New York was another state that was slow getting assistance to renters. Last July, Governor Cuomo announced that the state would spend $100 million in CARES Act funds for emergency rental assistance. By the end of October, only $40 million had been disbursed. More than 50,000 applicants were denied assistance because the criteria set by legislators was hard to meet.

Another obstacle for New York renters was having to document that they lost income because of COVID-19. Low-income renters getting unemployment benefits were earning more than their regular jobs because of the $600 weekly federal boost. They could not qualify for assistance, even if they owed many months of back rent.

Some states limited the amount of assistance renters could receive each month. Pennsylvania capped emergency rental assistance at $750 per month. This is below the median rent for the state. This is not enough to cover rents in  the state’s high-cost urban areas where the majority of renters live. Even though they are getting help, low-income renters will still find themselves with large amounts of back rent.

In some cases, states diverted emergency rental assistance funds to other uses. CARES Act funding originally had to be spent by the end of 2020. Congress extended the deadline to use these funds when it passed coronavirus relief at the end of December. Many states, though, had re-programmed the ERA money to other uses rather than lose it by the earlier deadline.

Billions of dollars in federal emergency rental assistance is now available to help low-income renters stay in their homes. If state and local governments simplify their applications, they can help more families avoid eviction. Concerns about documentation and fraud need to be balanced by the need to get emergency rental assistance to the people who need it most.

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