Jurisdictions received an unprecedented amount of emergency rental assistance (ERA) to support their communities during and after the COVID-19 pandemic but faced barriers getting relief in the hands of those who needed it most. Rollout was slow at first, as many landlords and tenants weren’t aware of it or were confused about eligibility. On top of this, evidence shows landlords significantly influenced their tenants’ access.
Over the course of ERA implementation, the Urban Institute developed tools to enhance targeted delivery of relief funds. We also supported the use of those tools through targeted technical assistance to four geographically diverse communities and by monitoring progress in communities across the country. This gave us a firsthand perspective on the challenges and successes grantees faced when trying to administer ERA relief equitably.
Through our conversations, we learned the ERA’s reliance on landlord participation was a barrier to assistance for many tenants. Our work with local ERA programs highlighted four key lessons for strengthening landlord engagement, which can help inform and strengthen future emergency relief rollout for other jurisdictions.
The challenges of programs that rely on landlord participation
The ERA program was created to provide relief to both tenants and landlords through rental relief payments. Initially, the US Department of the Treasury directed these payments must be made to landlords on behalf of qualifying tenants (PDF), but they allowed local programs to offer direct-to-tenant payments in cases of unwilling or unresponsive landlords.
In a 2021 survey of 64 ERA programs, 44 percent of respondents identified landlord nonparticipation as a significant challenge. In response to this barrier, the Treasury adjusted guidance for the first round of funding to encourage use of direct-to-tenant payments in cases of unresponsive or unwilling landlords (PDF).
Federal officials went even further for the second round of funding, requiring use in the case of noncooperative landlords and allowing tenant payments without any landlord outreach. They also put pressure on state courts to support the program by encouraging landlords to accept assistance payments instead of proceeding with evictions.
There are a few documented reasons why landlords may have been reluctant to participate in the program, including unawareness, misunderstanding of eligibility, fears about delivery, and preference for eviction. Localities adopted a variety of strategies to address these challenges, including targeted landlord outreach programs and offering bulk payments to owners of multiple units.
Landlord engagement strategies
Market-based assistance programs, like ERA, rely on landlord participation, upholding existing dynamics that grant landlords more power in the landlord-tenant relationship. This leaves these programs more prone to barriers and slowdowns caused by landlord agency. While working with local ERA programs, local program administrators can implement these strategies to engage landlords and avoid assistance slowdowns.
- Build strong relationships
Landlords are critical brokers and beneficiaries of assistance, and securing their trust and buy-in is essential for an effective program. ERA programs that utilized existing relationships or did special outreach and education for landlords saw improvements in landlord enrollment (PDF) and down-the-line protections for renters (PDF).
- Reduce administrative burdens and incentivize participation
Making it easier and more beneficial for landlords to participate can have important benefits. Many ERA programs offered bulk payments for landlords with several eligible tenants, which allowed them to a single application and receive one large payment. This can be especially beneficial for large corporate landlords, who are more likely to evict. Incentives, such as tax breaks or bonuses, are also a powerful tool.
- Create enforcement mechanisms
Program administrators discussed the challenges of enforcing eviction moratoriums for participating landlords. In response, many localities moved to prohibit eviction filings for participating landlords and tenants, giving protections real legal teeth instead of relying on the good faith of property owners.
- Shift power dynamics
Landlords are critical stakeholders for most renter stability programs because of existing power structures that are perpetuated by program design. Direct-to-tenant payments can reduce these impacts by removing landlord agency. For ERA programs, shifting to direct-to-tenant distribution provided opportunities for tenants whose landlords were unwilling or slow to cooperate. States and localities can also reduce these imbalances in legal proceedings by providing legal assistance and landlord-tenant mediation and increasing the burden of filing for eviction.
Researchers are still examining ERA programs and their effects, as well as the barriers that slowed assistance delivery. Landlords are a key piece of the puzzle and will continue to be an important pillar of future assistance programs. Ensuring they can be strong partners will help more equitably and effectively deliver assistance to renters.