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Thursday, June 8, 2023

King County COVID Rental Assistance: Help Where It Was Most Needed, But Questions Remain

Over 75% of those who received rental assistance through EPRAP 2.0 were minority households, with Black/African Americans making up the largest group at 35%.

By Cesar Canizales, Special to The Medium

With the end of the state and local COVID-19 eviction moratoriums, a look at the rental assistance programs revealed efforts by King County to help people who were hit hardest by the pandemic over the last two years – Black, Indigenous and other people of color – stay in their homes.

The county, working with nonprofit, community-based organizations, focused aid on the southern region of the county, where minority populations have moved as housing became increasingly unaffordable in areas closer to Central Seattle.

While the work from the county’s Eviction Prevention and Rent Assistance Program was slow to get up to speed, the data shows that the program worked as intended and allowed thousands of households to avoid racking up rental debt that they would have had to pay when the eviction moratoriums ended. 

However, the risk of eviction is growing for many others as the county and its partner organizations wrap up the program over the next few weeks and uses up all the state and federal funds in its coffers.

The scramble to keep people housed

When COVID-19 hit the Seattle region in early 2020, businesses of all sizes had to shut down, leaving thousands of workers without an income to pay for their housing and other needs. Faced with the possibility of adding thousands of people to the already-large homeless population in the middle of a pandemic, local and state governments enacted eviction moratoriums.

The moratoriums protected King County residents from evictions for non-payment of rent, as workers stayed home while the pandemic sickened and killed thousands in the area. The moratoriums did not exempt the tenants from eventually paying rent, which could mean thousands of dollars in rent debt.

King County, which already faced a homelessness crisis coupled with thousands of yearly evictions before COVID, launched the Eviction Prevention and Rent Assistance Program, or EPRAP.

“We had to, because of the emergency, create a huge program where one didn’t exist before,” said Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services.

The goal was to keep people housed by paying tenants’ rent directly to the landlords, while preventing the renters from accumulating rent debt that they likely wouldn’t be able to pay back when the moratoriums ended. Thus, a future eviction crisis could be avoided.

Part of that goal, Flor said, was to implement a program that would not perpetuate racial disparities in evictions and homelessness. He said a study from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project had found that women and communities of color were disproportionately impacted by evictions.

“I don’t think we had an illusion that we could break entire centuries of systemic racism and its effects, but I think we absolutely had the ambition to design a program that wouldn’t contribute to it or make it worse,” said Flor.

The county partnered with more than 70 community-based organizations that had relationships with the minority communities and low-income people that the county was trying to assist.

Flor said the county contracted with those organizations, who went out and knocked on doors and did outreach for people who had little or no access to the internet or who might have language barriers. The organizations would follow up with applicants to make sure all their paperwork was in order.

“We didn’t depend on people being able to get to the internet, and we didn’t build a system that said first-come, first-served,” Flor said. “That’s one of the reasons why I think we have results that can contribute to reducing inequity, even though I think there’s still a long way to go there.”

The county’s data showed that many people in those communities lived in South King County – in Renton, Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, SeaTac, for example. So, the first iteration of the program, launched in 2020, prioritized zip codes with high rates of poverty and publicly-funded buildings – areas with people at the highest risk of eviction.

While the decision was controversial at the time, Flor said it was the right one, as 75% of the households that received rental assistance are headed by people of color. Additionally, 50% of the funds went to south King County, the area where poverty is highest.

According to data from King County, more than 11,600 households received rental assistance from August 2020 to June 2021 at a cost of about $50 million, or about $4,300 per household.

As the pandemic continued, businesses remained idle, unable to open because of local regulations prohibiting them from resuming operations. Hundreds of businesses shut down permanently, and the number of those seeking help with housing continued to climb.

During EPRAP 2.0, which started in mid-2021, almost 47,000 households requested rental assistance. The county distributed $264 million to help more than 24,000 households, or about $11,000 per household. The program stopped accepting rental assistance applications in late February, but the county is continuing to process applications and will assist more people to use up the remaining funds.

According to the county, more than 7,800 households who applied and who were qualified to receive assistance through EPRAP 2.0 likely will not receive help because of lack of funds.

Over 75% of those who received rental assistance through EPRAP 2.0 were minority households, and according to Flor and date from the county, Black/African Americans made up the largest group at 35%.

The top 10 areas that had the highest need for rental assistance per capita have high concentrations of communities of color, and they’re all in south King County. SeaTac, at about 171 per 1,000 households, Tukwila at 168, and Boulevard Park at 144, made up the top three jurisdictions.

Flor said when it’s all done, the total cost of helping households with rental assistance will be close to $350 million.

Housing instability outlook

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, approximately 2.8% of households in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region have low or no confidence that they will be able to pay next month’s rent or mortgage, pointing to an elevated need for assistance. The 2.8% of households equates to about 63,00 homes with housing insecurity.

Maju Qureshi, Economic Stability Director at the Multi-Service Center in Federal Way, said in 2020, EPRAP enabled her organization to help over 620 households, with nearly 70% of that aid going to minority communities.

While her organization helped many people during the moratorium, landlords were able to increase rent, so the problem of housing affordability remains dangerous for low-income families, Qureshi said, so the issues that lead to housing instability are still present.

“We’re not able to get to the core,” Qureshi said. “How do we truly assist these households so they’re in a position where they don’t have to seek out rental assistance next month.”

Additionally, the risk of displacement for families who moved from Seattle to South King County for more affordable housing could see more housing disruption.

Qureshi cited a recent study from the University of California at Berkeley that looked at the risk of eviction and displacement in a post-pandemic world in different parts of the country, including King County. The report shows that people in South King County are at an elevated risk.

With the end of the moratoriums, Qureshi said she is already seeing an increase in requests for rental assistance compared to three months ago, including from seniors who live on limited incomes.

Edmund Witter, managing attorney with the Housing Justice Project, which provides legal assistance and funds to renters who are facing eviction, says that in February eviction filings at the King County Court were at about 25% of the pre-COVID historical average for that month.

But Witter said he is seeing an uptick in the calls from people in King County, and the volume is increasing steadily.

“That said, though, it’s not like a cliff at this point,” he said. Witter added that there are variables at play, such as the large landlord fund that is preventing evictions.

However, Witter said cases could accelerate in June.

“That’s when I think a lot of the funds will be exhausted, and that’s when Seattle will probably start seeing a little bit more. We’re just starting to see Seattle cases turn,” he added.

Witter hopes the county will be able to maintain an eviction prevention program, especially because it doesn’t cost a lot of money relative to what the county spends on homelessness.

“One thing that we’re trying to do at the county right now is to guarantee some long-term safety nets here to be able to help people who are about to face eviction,” said Witter.

According to Witter, typical eviction cases are about small amounts of money, usually in the $300 to $400 range.

“We could really make evictions for non-payment of rent for low-income people, for poverty—we could make them almost never happen. It can be done,” he said.

Flor said EPRAP could serve as a model for the future.

“We still have a housing problem. We still got a housing affordability problem, and we still have and income disparity problem,” Flor said. “So, this temporary program might offer some solutions that could help longer term policy interventions to break this cycle that has thousands of people being evicted every year.”

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