The blog of the Urban Institute
August 16, 2021

How to Leverage Behavioral Science to Get Emergency Rental Assistance into the Hands of Vulnerable Households Faster

August 16, 2021

Rent relief gained national attention last week, when the federal eviction moratorium lapsed before a new protection was enacted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for areas with high rates of COVID-19 spread. As of June, state and local rental assistance programs had distributed only around $3 billion of the more than $47 billion in federal funding allocated for emergency rental assistance (ERA). Although distribution has significantly sped up compared with previous months, the current pace means relief will not reach (PDF) millions of renters in need soon enough.

These distribution data were key to understanding ERA programs’ progress, but they were missing important information to understand programs’ impacts and challenges—such as whether the programs distributing aid quickly are reaching households most at risk of eviction. There has been little insight into why certain ERA programs have been distributing assistance faster than others or what can be done to help lagging programs.

Lessons from behavioral science, the study of how people make decisions, can improve ERA programs to encourage renters to apply and to ensure assistance quickly gets into the hands of the people who need it most.

What barriers are renters facing in accessing assistance?

Both renters and landlords face structural barriers to accessing emergency rental assistance. An Urban Institute analysis found that, among rental units owned by independent mom-and-pop landlords, more than half of renters and 40 percent of landlords are unaware that federal assistance is available. The analysis also found that misinformation, lack of awareness of available resources, and uncertainty that landlords or tenants will receive assistance were the leading reasons why people aren’t taking up rental assistance.

Other barriers include the technological and digital divide. COVID-19 has pushed many activities online, and the same is true for ERA applications. But in 2019, more than 13 million renters reported not having internet access, and half of this group are elderly people, people of color, households with low incomes, and renters who live in rural communities. These groups have historically suffered from disproportionate rates of housing instability and would benefit from rental assistance.

Housing advocates have expressed that online ERA applications are often inaccessible because many of their clients lack smartphones or computers. This barrier, in addition to the applications being overly complicated and in English by default, has slowed completion rates.

And despite the public charge rule effectively ending in April 2021, many immigrant communities have paused their uptake of government resources for basic needs out of fear of jeopardizing their pathway to citizenship or being exposed to law enforcement agencies. Renters are also often required to submit state identification cards and tax information for ERA, which creates significant barriers for undocumented renters or those working in the informal economy.

Behavioral science can help ERA program administrators better reach tenants and landlords

Behavioral science is the study of how people make decisions. It has been used to help governments run more effectively by helping places more productively engage their residents in programs or initiatives. Behavioral nudges, which have been used in the public sector, streamline decisionmaking for community members by presenting choices in a way that positions people to choose the option that benefits them.

As more rental assistance programs are building capacity and infrastructure, using interventions that incorporate behavioral science and nudges can help convince both landlords and renters to complete applications, encourage communities most at risk of housing instability to apply, and distribute funds to households most in need.

Simple and cost-effective nudges can be incorporated into ERA applications or portals, such as rewording applications to make them less complicated, using direct calls to action that invite undocumented people or mixed-status households to apply, adjusting default settings on applications to make them more user-friendly on smartphones, backloading or reducing documentation required to complete an application, adding a percentage progress bar at the top of an online application (PDF) to make it seem like working toward a goal, or using existing programs to automatically confirm certain parts of an application, such as income qualification.   

Strategies to more effectively distribute emergency rental assistance

Below are ways local program administrators can use behavioral science to speed rental relief delivery as federal eviction protections start to run out:

  • Increase ease of application through existing programs. The US Department of the Treasury has provided guidance that allows renters to self-certify risk of housing instability and economic hardship caused by COVID-19. Still, applicants are struggling to understand what documentation is needed as part of their application. To cast a wide net of potential applicants, programs like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could leverage their network of recipients and send letters or emails with messaging that confirms enrollment in their program meets the federal income eligibility requirement to access emergency rental assistance. People who know they already qualify for assistance based on their income level may be more inclined to apply.
  • Expand and strengthen personalized outreach efforts. To attract some of the most vulnerable renters, localities could launch outreach efforts with personalized messaging that is educational and accessible. Working with trusted community-based partners can support building culturally competent messages that resonate with immigrant or mixed-status households. Creating outreach with personalized appeals to encourage the uptake of ERA in various languages with clear calls to action, upcoming deadlines, and messaging that explicitly states that undocumented people are encouraged to apply for ERA without fear of repercussions can help reach people concerned about applying. Similarly, clear language about the availability of emergency rental assistance, ways to get help, and the information needed to apply could be inserted in eviction summons. 
  • Track effectiveness. Using a control group and one or more experimental groups for A/B testing would offer an opportunity to collect data and see what strategies work best for future programming. For example, a group could be asked to complete an application where they must upload documents at the beginning of the process, as opposed to at the end of the process for a different group. The results could offer insights into whether uploading documents was a barrier for some applicants. Tracking these data can identify pain points in ERA application design that program administrators can then troubleshoot to ease the process or help with redesigning a more accessible ERA application that meets everyone’s needs.

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