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Pandemic rental assistance can’t get to US renters fast enough

·4 min read
A white sign reads FOR RENT in blue text in front of a brick house
A white sign reads FOR RENT in blue text in front of a brick house

From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, US housing advocates warned that nationwide government assistance to help renters cover months of back-owed rent was the only way to stave off an eviction crisis in the long term. Now, a month after the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium, the distribution of rent relief at the state and local level has become all the more important.

The US Treasury reported on Sept. 24 that states and cities had distributed $7.7 billion in emergency rental assistance in nearly 1.4 million payments by the end of August, representing 16% of the overall federal pot. August saw the most money distributed so far, reaching 420,000 households, up from 365,000 in July.

The Treasury has sent more than $40 billion in rental assistance money directly to state, local, and tribal governments, after two rounds of payments were authorized by Congress in December 2020 and March 2021.The money has been making its way to renters who need it most—slowly at first, but at a more efficient clip recently.

When the program was first rolled out, state and local authorities tasked with distributing assistance payments found themselves overwhelmed, with virtually no structure in place to reach vulnerable tenants, and cumbersome bureaucratic systems that led to delays and confusion in getting applications processed. In the months since, some cities have gotten more efficient, and some best practices have emerged.

Still, this money is hardly coming fast enough to meet the incredible need. The most recent US Census survey found that roughly 3.3 million Americans households are worried about facing eviction within two months. If evictions continue to rise as they have in a handful of cities, preventing an eviction wave will require a continued ramping up of relief distribution.

Cities and states have gotten better at distributing rent relief

Early on, rent relief distribution was bottlenecked by bureaucracy. Many county and city governments simply didn't know how to reach out to people most in need. For this, they turned to local organizations—often nonprofits serving immigrants or low-income people—that had already done the ground work of establishing community ties.The Center for Popular Democracy is a national advocacy group that works with smaller community groups around the country. Talking to local partners in Maryland, New York, and elsewhere, they found that these groups were essential actors in getting payments distributed.

"A number of success stories that we've seen happen in our network come from informal partnerships," Dianne Enriquez, Center for Popular Democracy's co-director of community dignity campaigns, told Quartz in August. "There's a lot of nervousness and fear [among renters] around accessing these funds, so there needs to be intervention by a trusted community organization that helps people move through the process."

Another barrier in many places was the application itself; renters needed lots of documentation to prove their income and risk of entering homelessness to be eligible for funds. In some states, applications took upwards of 10 weeks to process. More recently, states including North Carolina, Kentucky, and New Jersey have begun to simplify their processes, accepting self-attestation of hardship and proxies for income confirmation like the use of social benefits.

As cities began to improve their systems, the Treasury Department organized some of these best practices into official guidance for all agencies distributing the aid. The Treasury began to encourage partnerships with nonprofits, and allowed funds to be used more flexibly, toward past addresses or toward court payments for tenants already in an eviction process.

Money to prevent evictions still isn't getting to people fast enough

There are still at least 90 jurisdictions that had spent less than 10% of their first round of rental assistance allotments by the end of August. And in some states, the pace of distribution is slowing—Texas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois all dolled out less money in August than they did in June or July.

In the recovery from the pandemic, state and local governments have received more federal assistance to address affordable housing and other local needs than they have in years. In fact, more money could be coming, depending on the fates of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion spending package that are currently being debated in Congress.

But renters facing eviction are in a race against time.

Though the massive eviction cliff that was at one time predicted hasn't materialized, evictions are starting to rise in some places; a review of data collected by Eviction Lab found an increase in eviction filings in at least three states and 13 cities across the US in August. If evictions are carried out faster than funds can be distributed, people will be left without housing.

The Treasury has made clear its priority for states and cities to act swiftly in distributing these payments, warning that places that have not used at least 65% of their first round of funding by Sept. 30 will have their money reallocated.

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