The Biden administration is greasing the wheels of the struggling federal rental aid program, but many renters are still being left out.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was born out of the Covid relief bill that Congress passed in December to help low- and moderate-income households behind on their rent and utilities. In the early months of the program, the money was slow to flow; federal data show that the pace of emergency rental aid going to tenants has increased in recent months. However, experts said, renters continue to face major hurdles, including technology barriers, overcomplicated rules in different states and cities, long wait times and burdensome processes.
Last month,$2.8 billion was disbursed to renters, up from $2.3 billion in August. However, only about $10 billion of the nearly $47 billion Congress set aside has landed in tenants’ pockets since January, according to Treasury data.
After the Supreme Court killed the federal eviction moratorium in August, the level of protection for renters who cannot pay rent has varied state by state. There is scant data about the scope of evictions, but in six states and 31 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, landlords have filed for over 561,000 evictions since mid-March 2020.
The most recent federal Census Pulse Survey data also suggest that about 3 million households have expressed concern about imminent eviction, with low-income households most at risk.
“There has been no major national spike in evictions after the federal moratorium came down, with evictions filings remaining below historical averages,” the Treasury Department, which oversees the rental assistance program, said in a statement Monday, citing Eviction Lab data. “That said, every unnecessary eviction is one too many, which is why Treasury continues to do everything it can to make sure assistance is reaching people who need it most.”
The Treasury Department has tried to speed payments by warning local officials that it would begin to take back excess funds from states that lag in distributing the payments and give them to “high performing” states. While the agency has given unsuccessful programs some leeway — allowing them to submit plans to reform and save their funds — tenants are running into roadblocks, even in places that are considered to be doing well.
Oregon, for instance, has paid out or obligated 83 percent of its money, according to data provided by the state. But Kim McCarty, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, an Oregon-based advocacy group, said tens of thousands of renters in the state are still at risk of eviction. One of the issues is that the state program did not begin to accept applications until June, even though funds had been available since January, according to Treasury data.
“The picture for tenants is very dire,” McCarty said. “While we know that Oregon has millions of dollars to distribute emergency rental assistance … the truth is that the courts are open and that evictions are happening.” She estimated that 27,000 households are at risk of eviction.
The Treasury Department issued notices in June and August encouraging jurisdictions to loosen their guidelines and streamline payments. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo acknowledged the problem in August.
“While Treasury has repeatedly published clear guidance discouraging undue documentation burdens that limit access for eligible families, we continue to hear about programs that will not accept self-attestations, and others that are adding documentation requirements that Treasury does not require,” he said in a statement.
Oregon’s program administrator did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, Amber Cook lost her job as a tax preparer because of the pandemic and turned to rental assistance to pay her bills after her unemployment benefits ran out. Cook, 53, of Portland, who also is a local tenant organizer, said that burdensome paperwork delayed her payments and that it took about four months for her to get the housing aid she had requested. She said the tedious application process makes her anxious about what the next several months could mean for having safe and secure housing.
Diane Yentl, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a tenants rights organization that also tracks payments to households, said, “It’s the tenants that live in states that have little to no protection against eviction and where the emergency rental assistance is getting out much too slowly where they’re most vulnerable to potentially losing their homes before the emergency rent gets to them.”
The agency defines success as using at least 65 percent of rental assistance money, while the programs most at risk are those that have disbursed less than 30 percent of their available funds. Yentl’s group estimates that 40 percent of programs across the country might have to forfeit funding.
Under those rules, Arizona’s could be one of the programs on the chopping block. The state has spent about $28 million of the over $300 million Congress allocated, according to state and Treasury data.
Tasya Peterson, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, or DES, which oversees the program, said in a statement that the state is confident that it will be able to address the needs of renters seeking assistance.
“DES knew at the onset its allocation would be greater than what is necessary to serve this population,” she said. “We continue to work with the U.S. Treasury and all of the jurisdictions operating their own programs to make sure that resources are available so there are no disruptions to payments for eligible households.”
Greg Brown, the senior vice president of the 93,000-member National Apartment Association, which represents landlords, said the group has been focused on lobbying for reforms, such as having landlords initiate the application process instead of waiting on reluctant tenants.
“Just because your program isn’t working doesn’t mean there aren’t people that need the help. There are millions of people who need this help, and we’ve got to do whatever we can do to make them whole,” he said.