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‘Where Is the Money?’: Millions Risk Eviction Over Delayed U.S. Aid

·6 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Sharon Oser has been trying for months to get government assistance to pay rent. But 10 days before a federal eviction moratorium expires, the Louisiana resident has yet to see a single penny.

Like millions of Americans, Oser, who has not worked since an injury in October 2019, worries she will soon lose her home despite billions in unspent aid passed by Congress and distributed to programs nationwide during the Covid-19 pandemic.

States and local jurisdictions, whose disparate programs have been mired in bureaucracy and communications problems, have disbursed just a fraction of the $47 billion in federal funding enacted since December to help struggling renters pay their housing costs and landlords recoup lost revenue.

Localities, at the same time, risk losing at least some of that funding altogether if they don’t get the bulk of it into the hands of Americans before October.

Oser, 47, applied for aid through Jefferson Parish after Louisiana received more than $300 million in federal rent relief funding in February. With medical bills and student debt, she is 10 months behind on rent and got an eviction notice earlier this year.

Through a combination of crossed communications and unclear documentation requirements, Oser is still waiting for assistance.

“My thing is like, why, why do we not know?” Oser said. “There’s millions and millions of dollars that have been allocated in Louisiana for residents” facing this dilemma. “Where is the money?”

The first round of federal funds, totaling $25 billion, was fully distributed to states and local jurisdictions by early February. By the end of May, the federal government had distributed another $8.6 billion from a $21.5 billion second round enacted in March.

But only 12% of the first tranche of funding had made its way to renters by late June, according to U.S. Treasury Department data released on Wednesday. A handful of states like Texas and Virginia that quickly built infrastructure to dole out the money accounted for an outsize share of the funds that had been disbursed.

“Some communities are spending their money quickly and well, making those that haven’t all the more glaring and unacceptable,” National Low Income Housing Coalition President Diane Yentel said in a statement.

More than 80 jurisdictions hadn’t even started their distribution programs by the end of May. Los Angeles, which began accepting applications in late March but didn’t begin paying out funds until months later, has used just 2% of its federal allocation as of June 30. That’s enough to help about 300 households in a city where renters make up 63% of the population.

In New York, applications for the state-run program didn’t open until June 1. A month later, the state hadn’t disbursed a cent.

Coreena Popowitch, a tenant in the Bronx who owes $8,000 in back rent, spent two hours filling out her application the day the site opened -- and had to resubmit documentation after the website crashed.

“It’s just long and tedious and it can be confusing,” she said.

The programs are ramping up but housing advocates and landlord groups are sounding alarms that jurisdictions still are not moving quickly enough to stave off a crisis that could have disastrous effects for both property owners and tenants like Oser and Popowitch.

Nationally, some $1.5 billion was spent on rent, utilities and arrears in June, nearly double the previous month and nearly six times what was distributed in early 2021. The number of renters getting the money also accelerated, reaching more than 290,000 households in June.

Some cities and states have enacted eviction restrictions that last longer than the federal moratorium. But for many tenants, protections are running out.

“I think a lot of people are worried about what happens at the end of July,” said Ann Oliva, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Removing red tape

Several states and localities have made changes to speed delivery of the funds and make applications less onerous, said Paula Cino, vice president of construction, development and land use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord group.

California, for instance, recently decided to pay the full amount in arrears, reversing an early decision to allow landlords to accept only a portion of what they were owed.

The Treasury has also released its own recommendations for distributing the money and taken a number of steps to remove red tape.

Families experiencing homelessness can now bypass rent obligation requirements and apply for help with future rent, relocation assistance and temporary hotel housing. The Justice Department has encouraged state courts to use the money for anti-eviction programs that can connect at-risk families with mediation services.

The Treasury has also reminded slow-moving states that they could lose some of their allocations if things don’t pick up by the end of September, an official said.

“That deadline has always been really, really, really tough for program administrators to meet,” said Rebecca Yae, a senior research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In New York, for instance, billions of dollars allocated for rental assistance were mired for months in state budget negotiations.

Reach Out and Race

Landlords and tenants trying to access the funds have hit a number of roadblocks, including excessive paperwork, said Bob Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association. Error messages have left applicants confused about their status.

The local control of the programs, meanwhile, has made it difficult to launch a national campaign to alert people that the assistance is even available, he said.

A survey published by the Urban Institute last month showed that more than half of renters and 40% of mom-and-pop landlords were unaware rental assistance existed.

“States are doubling down on efforts to communicate the availability of assistance through a variety of channels,” said Stockton Williams, the executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. “They need and are engaging others to help because government agencies are not always going to be the most trusted and effective messengers with some folks no matter what they are offering.”

In some areas, communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, aren’t accessing the relief funds to the same extent as White renters.

In California, White, non-Latino renters make up the largest share of the applicant pool, according to an analysis by the Housing Initiative at Penn that looked at data from the state-run program through June 25. That group has received almost $35 million in rental assistance, compared to $21 million approved for all Black applicants and $13 million for all Asian applicants.

The share of Black applicants is far smaller than the share of Black renters in some counties with the largest number of applications, according to the report. Participation rates for Asian and Latino renters also fall behind what might be expected in some counties with large tenant populations from those communities.

The state is trying to rectify the inequities with targeted outreach efforts coordinated with local organizations, the report said.

Even as the economy springs back to life, the scale of the rental crisis is still huge. Nationally, 5.6 million renters, or 13% of the total were behind on payments in June, according to Moody’s Analytics estimates. That’s about double the rate of delinquency typically seen before the pandemic.

Collectively, tenants owed about $24 billion in arrears, according to Moody’s, down from a peak of $52.6 billion in January.

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