Denver, Colorado skyline.

Taking the stigma out of rental assistance increases applications

Denver, Colorado skyline.
Denver, CO skyline. Modified photo © James St. John on

Although Congress has provided billions of dollars for Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA), state and local governments have been slow to get that money to desperate renters and landlords.

This issue is partly due to problems with how some programs are run, but some areas have low submission rates for applications. In response, local agencies are looking at creative ways to inform more renters about assistance that can keep them in their homes.

An initiative to take the stigma out of applying for public assistance is an idea that has successfully increased the number of applications submitted.

As an example of this success, the City and County of Denver, Colorado, partnered with The People Lab. The University of California, Berkeley initiative aims to transform the public sector so agencies can better help the communities they serve.

The partnership developed a low-cost approach that greatly increased the number of applications submitted by low-income renters. Like many states, Colorado has been slow getting emergency rental assistance to those desperate to avoid eviction.

The team wondered if personalized outreach would increase the number of applications, compared with just doing general advertising. They decided on using informational postcards mailed directly to renter households.

The People Lab logo
The People Lab logo

Working with Denver officials, the team identified the 56 most at-risk neighborhoods in the Denver area. These neighborhoods are home to more than 62,000 renter households. They randomly selected 50,000 households to receive the personalized outreach postcards.

The team prepared two different outreach postcards. They first provided the basic information about emergency rental assistance and how to apply. The second postcard had the language altered slightly. The new language was chosen to reduce the stigma some residents might feel when asking for help.

Some examples of how The People Lab changed the postcard language to make applying more encouraging include:

“You’re not alone. Denver has many programs to support residents in need.” (Info postcard)


“You’re not alone and it’s not your fault. Because of COVID-19, many Denver residents need a little extra help right now.” (De-stigmatizing postcard)

“If you are eligible, you can receive an application via mail or email.” (Info postcard)


“All eligible residents can receive an application via mail or email.” (De-stigmatizing postcard).

“We can help many eligible households in need.” (Info postcard)


“We’re here to help every eligible household get the assistance they deserve.” (De-stigmatizing postcard)

Half of the renters received the basic postcard, while the other half received the de-stigmatizing postcard. The renters not selected for the study served as a control group.

The results were dramatic. There was a 77% increase in application requests from the group that got the de-stigmatizing postcard, compared with the control group that did not receive a postcard.

Those who received the de-stigmatizing postcards were also more likely to submit their applications. There was a 40% increase in applications submitted by those who got the de-stigmatizing postcard, compared with the control group.

The postcards that reduced stigma also did a better job motivating Black and Hispanic renters to apply for assistance. Black renters around the country are the group that is most at-risk of eviction. 

Only 4.6% of applications submitted by the control group were from Black renters. By contrast, 26.4% of applications submitted by the de-stigmatizing group were from Black renters. Hispanic renters saw a similar, although less dramatic, rise in applications.

Elizabeth Linos, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, presented these results from the initiative on a September 13th National Low-Income Housing Coalition webinar.

Denver’s success with this strategy shows how programs in other places can better reach out to renters. Targeted, “light touch” efforts can bring assistance to many more renters. The Denver experience shows that it does not cost much to assure people that they deserve assistance and it is not their fault during this time of crisis.

If you are behind on your rent and have not applied for emergency rental assistance, you should do so immediately. In many states, eviction courts will put a hold on proceedings if a tenant has an application pending for emergency rental assistance.

If you see a public notice about assistance with back rent and utilities, you should not feel any stigma about applying for help. People all over the country face the same problems caused by the pandemic. These are your tax dollars that Congress provided to help renters and landlords get through this crisis.

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