Federal aid to renters moves slowly, leaving many at risk

By Jason DeParle

Four months after Congress approved tens of billions of dollars in emergency rental aid, only a small portion has reached landlords and tenants, and in many places it is impossible even to file an application.

The program requires hundreds of state and local governments to devise and carry out their own plans, and some have been slow to begin. But the pace is hindered mostly by the sheer complexity of the task: starting a huge pop-up program that reaches millions of tenants, verifies their debts and wins over landlords whose interests are not always the same as their renters’.

The money at stake is vast. Congress approved $25 billion in December and added more than $20 billion in March. The sum the federal government now has for emergency rental aid, $46.5 billion, rivals the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Experts say careful preparation may improve results; it takes time to find the neediest tenants and ensure payment accuracy. But with 1 in 7 renters reporting that they are behind on payments, the longer it takes to distribute the money, the more landlords suffer destabilizing losses, and tenants risk eviction.

Millions of tenants are protected from eviction only by a tenuous federal moratorium that faces multiple court challenges, omits many households and is scheduled to expire in June.

“I’m impressed with the amount of work that unsung public servants are doing to set up these programs, but it is problematic that more money isn’t getting out the door,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor at New York University who is studying the effort. “There are downstream effects if small landlords can’t keep up their buildings, and you want to reach families when they first hit a crisis so their problems don’t compound.”

Estimates of unpaid rents vary greatly, from $8 billion to $53 billion, with the sums that Congress has approved at the high end of the range.

The situation illustrates the patchwork nature of the American safety net. Food, cash, health care and other types of aid flow through separate programs. Each has its own mix of federal, state and local control, leading to great geographic variation.

While some pandemic aid has flowed through established programs, the rental help is both decentralized and new, making the variation especially pronounced.

Among those seeking help is Saundra Broughton, 48, a logistics worker outside Charleston, South Carolina, who considered herself safely middle class in the fall, when she rented an apartment with a fitness center and saltwater pool. To her shock, she was soon laid off; after her jobless benefits were delayed, she received an eviction notice.

“I’ve always worked and taken care of myself,” she said. “I’ve never been on public assistance.”

A judge gave Broughton 10 days to leave her apartment. Only a last-minute call to legal aid brought word of the federal moratorium, which requires tenants to apply. She rushed to the library to print the form with 24 hours to spare. “But I still owe the money,” she said, about $4,600 and counting.

If Broughton lived in nearby Berkeley County, she could have sought help as early as March 29. In Charleston County, a few miles away, she could have applied on April 12. But as a resident of Dorchester County, she must apply through the state, which has $272 million in federal money but is not yet taking applications.

“Why are they holding the money?” she said. “I have thousands of dollars of debt and could be kicked out at any moment. It’s a very frightening feeling.”

The huge aid measures passed during the early stages of the pandemic did not include specific provisions to help renters, though they did give most households cash. But hundreds of state and local governments started programs with discretionary money from the CARES Act, passed in March 2020. These efforts disbursed $4.5 billion in what amounted to a practice run for the effort now underway with 10 times the money.

Lessons cited include the need to reach out to the poorest tenants to let them know aid is available. Technology often posed barriers: Renters had to apply online, and many lacked computers or internet access.

The demand for documentation also thwarted aid, as many people without proof of leases or lost income could not finish applications. Some landlords declined to participate, perhaps preferring to seek new tenants.

Despite rising need, programs in Florida and New York, financed by the CARES Act, returned tens of millions of unspent dollars to the states. By the time Congress passed the new program in December, nearly 1 renter household in 5 reported being behind on payments.

The national effort, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, is run by the Treasury Department. It allocates money to states and also to cities and counties with populations of at least 200,000 that want to run their own programs. About 110 cities and 227 counties have chosen to do so.

The program offers up to 12 months of rent and utilities to low-income tenants economically harmed by the pandemic, with priority on households with less than half the area’s median income — typically about $34,000 a year. Federal law does not deny the aid to undocumented immigrants, though a few states and counties do.

Modern assistance seems to demand a mix of Jacob Riis and Bill Gates — outreach to the marginalized and help with software. Progress slowed for a month when the Biden administration canceled guidance issued under President Donald Trump and developed rules that require less documentation.

Other reasons for slow starts vary. Progressive state legislators in New York spent months debating the best way to protect the neediest tenants. Conservatives legislators in South Carolina were less focused on the issue. But the result was largely the same: Neither legislature passed its program until April, and neither state is yet accepting applications.

“I just don’t know why there hasn’t been more of a sense of urgency,” said Sue Berkowitz, the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “We’ve been hearing nonstop from people worried about eviction.”

There is no complete data on how many tenants have been helped. But of the $17.6 billion awarded to state governments, 20% is going to states not yet taking applications, though some local programs in those states are. Florida (which has $871 million), Illinois ($566 million) and North Carolina ($547 million) are among those that have yet to start.

“The pace is slow,” said Greg Brown of the National Apartment Association, who emphasized that landlords have mortgages, taxes and maintenance to pay.

In a recent talk at the Brookings Institution, Erika Poethig, a housing expert on the White House Domestic Policy Council, praised the “unprecedented amount of rental assistance” and said “the federal government only has so much ability” to encourage faster action.

Accepting applications is only the beginning. With $1.5 billion to spend, California has attracted 150,000 requests for help. But of the $355 million requested, only $20 million has been approved and $1 million paid.

Texas, with $1.3 billion to spend, started quickly, but the company it hired to run the program had software failures and staffing shortages. A committee in the state House of Representatives found that after 45 days, the program had paid just 250 households.

By contrast, a program jointly run by the city of Houston and Harris County had spent about a quarter of its money and assisted nearly 10,000 households.

“Giving away money is actually quite hard,” said Jen Loving, who runs Destination: Home, a housing group leading the campaign. “All the money in the world isn’t going to matter if it doesn’t get to the people who need it.”

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