By Charlene Crowell
An estimated 3.5 million renters face the likelihood of eviction over the next two months – despite the availability of $46 billion in emergency rental assistance (ERA) allocated by Congress. The crux of this looming crisis is the uneven local response to providing authorized assistance to both renters and landlords. And the approaching September 30 deadline for first round funding, against the approaching September 30 deadline for first-round funding leaves dwindling days for corrective actions.
While some city and county programs like those in Cook County, IL; Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Houston’s Harris County have efficiently distributed over 80% of allocated ERA funds, less than 5% of the same funds have reached renters and landlords in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Newark and Seattle, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). ERA programs in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee are similarly slow in delivering aid and also have paid less than 5% of available funding.
The ERA program is designed to serve eligible renters for as long as 12 months with rental and utility delinquency payments. An additional three months of assistance may be available to achieve household housing stability. Once a renter qualifies for assistance, the administering entity sends the payment directly to their landlord. If a landlord declines to receive the assistance, a grantee may provide the assistance to renters directly to make rental payments to their landlord. Property owners can also assist renters in applying for rental assistance under the program or apply on behalf of the tenant, but they are required to obtain the consent of the renter before applying.
Program access, however, is directly tied to two types of problems: landlords that refuse to participate[CC1] in the program and different eligibility standards by jurisdiction.
As reported earlier, in early June four private real estate entities joined with the Alabama and Georgia Associations of Realtors in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency ruling to end the nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. On June 29 the Court denied the realtors’ application, leaving the moratorium in place through the end of July. With the moratorium expiration, landlords have the option to refuse ERA program participation.
Further, eligibility standards – developed by each participating jurisdiction – seldom reflect the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidance encouraging landlords to allow tenant applicants to self-attest to their income and inability to pay rent. Instead, only 16% of programs explicitly allow renters to use self-attestation to document income and only 13% allow self-attestation of housing instability, according to NLIHC’s tracking analysis. Further, only 28% of programs explicitly allow direct-to-tenant assistance, which is critical to keeping renters stably housed when landlords refuse to participate in the program.
Now, a broad and diverse range of voices want to know why and how such vastly different ERA distributions have occurred and how delays can be corrected.
“I am very concerned about data showing that state and local governments have only used 11% of the $46.6 billion in emergency rental assistance funds that are available,” noted Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee (HFSC). “There is no question that the funds are not reaching landlords and renters quickly or widely enough.”
Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO agrees with Chairwoman Waters and on September 9 was part of a panel of housing experts who testified on program shortcomings and pending legislation.
“With nearly 6.5 million renter households still behind on rent, Congress, the Biden administration, and state and local governments must work quickly and aggressively to avert an historic wave of evictions and keep renters stably housed during the pandemic,” she said. “Federal, state, and local governments, as well as landlords, advocates, and ERA program administrators, must do more, better, and faster, lest millions of renters lose their homes in the coming months.”
Yentel also expressed support for one proposed legislative remedy, and warned against the likely harms of another. In her view, the “Expediting Assistance to Renters and Landlords Act of 2021,” introduced by Chairwoman Waters would build off existing program guidance and directives, address and correct many of the root causes of slow ERA spending and provide tenant protections.
Another housing expert, Kadeem Morris, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, shared his agency’s success in delivering needed ERA services while also noting the pandemic’s racial disparities.
“It has been shown across the country that eviction records have a disparate impact on Black women and their families, causing dangerous cycles of generational poverty and instability,” testified Morris. “This grim reality is reflected in Philadelphia, where 71% of annual eviction cases are filed in communities of color. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated difficulties facing Black communities and other communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people. These communities are most likely to have lost income during the pandemic, putting them at greater risk of eviction filings, and therefore putting them at risk of homelessness and instability beyond the pandemic.”
“For a rental assistance program to operate effectively, the program administrator cannot create additional barriers for tenants and landlords to jump through,” advised Morris. “If the stated goal of the program is to prevent evictions for vulnerable households during the pandemic, then municipalities and other administrators should limit the amount of paperwork and forms of verification that a tenant and or landlord has to submit. Additionally, programs should work to eliminate delays in processing of applications and payments to landlords.
Now that the world has shifted to mostly remote work,” continued Morris, “it is more difficult for vulnerable households to obtain things such as income documents and proof of benefits. Self-certification of income or benefits removes a significant hurdle for tenants seeking assistance. The requirement that participants have a current lease document can also be a barrier to participation…In Philadelphia, we have gotten around that barrier by allowing landlords to submit a letter verifying that the applicant is a tenant and their current rental amount.”
For Gilbert Winn, CEO of Winn Companies, one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers, “something needs to change”.
His 50-year- old Boston-based firm operates in 23 states and the District of Columbia, managing 600 rental communities reaching across the northeast mid-Atlantic, Florida, Texas and California. The firm has extensive experience in working with mixed-income communities utilizing a variety of federal, state and local housing subsidies, like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and the Section 8 housing voucher program.
Most notably and since the start of the pandemic, none of the 28,000 households managed by Winn Companies has been evicted for non-payment of rent.
Despite his firm’s performance, Winn also noted ERA’s shortcomings.
“The unfortunate result is that despite our constant best effort, too many of the very folks that ERA programs seek to help are those who have not benefited from the programs,” testified Winn. “We have found this to be consistent in nearly every state we operate within across the country…Our experience has shown that is possible to avoid hardship evictions and preserve much of the rental income that is fundamental to operating quality rental housing,” continued Winn. “Helping people to stay sustainably in their homes has myriad benefits; it’s good for our residents, for communities, our employees and the economy.”
Getting approved monies earmarked for emergency rental assistance can and should prevent unnecessary evictions. But correcting America’s long-standing mismatch between rising housing costs and low-rising incomes requires a permanent solution.