The blog of the Urban Institute
September 1, 2020

How Should Communities Target Scarce Rental Assistance Resources?

The number of people at risk of housing instability has grown to unprecedented levels, with one estimate predicting between 30 million and 40 million people could be at risk of eviction in the next several months. The best way to help people avoid losing their homes is to provide rental assistance to everyone in the risk pool. But so far, federal relief packages have not responded to the extraordinary need with any kind of large-scale federal rent relief program.

Without enough rental assistance available for everyone at risk of eviction, local policymakers are left to decide how to allocate scarce resources awarded through other CARES Act programs and through public and private sources. Our partners in the Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response have developed guidance on using these federal resources, particularly in helping people already experiencing homelessness.

Beyond using these funds to help people currently experiencing homelessness, communities can also use their resources to help people stay in their homes. When resources are limited, local leaders need to target rental assistance to the people most at risk of eviction and homelessness.

So how do we figure out who’s most at risk? There’s no foolproof roadmap, but these three principles can help local leaders determine how to prioritize their scarce rental assistance resources.

1. Focus on addressing inequities

Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have been historically and systematically excluded from housing and economic opportunities. As a result, they have higher rates of homelessness (PDF) and eviction, greater rental cost burdens, and lower homeownership rates. The have also suffered greater health and economic effects from COVID-19. And recent data show housing disparities continue to widen during the pandemic. To address systemic inequities, policymakers can include historically marginalized groups in the planning process to allocate resources and directly target resources to these households.

2. Prioritize households most at risk

Evidence is limited on how to predict who will become homeless, which makes targeting prevention efforts challenging. Generally, research has shown that the more communities target prevention resources to lower-income households, the greater the likelihood those resources will prevent an incidence of homelessness. And, when incidences of homelessness are prevented, shelter costs go down, which offsets some costs of the prevention efforts. We also know that eviction, a traumatic event with enduring effects, substantially increases the risk of homelessness, but doesn’t always lead to it (PDF).

Some researchers have used predictive analytics to identify individual-level factors that increase the likelihood that a person will become homeless, such as being young, being pregnant, having a young child, facing an eviction threat, moving frequently, not holding a lease, experiencing child adversity and involvement in child protective services, and experiencing previous homelessness. But the science around predictive analytics isn’t perfect, and many people identified as being at risk of either eviction or homelessness by these predictive factors resolve the situation and avoid entering shelter or being evicted. They may “self-resolve” by going into debt to family members or credit card companies, or they may lose their housing but avoid entering shelter by doubling up or living in their cars or other places not intended for sleeping.

3. Target resources to neighborhoods with the greatest need

A key challenge for homelessness prevention is that programs often wait until people come to a shelter or show up in court for an eviction hearing to offer help. Some evidence shows it can be more effective to take a proactive approach and, instead, go where people are most likely to lose their housing. New York City’s Homebase Community Prevention program set up community-based services (including resources for missed rent payments, mediation with landlords, relocation to other housing if needed, and links to social benefits) in neighborhoods where people asking for shelter lived. Studies show this approach can reduce the number of families entering shelters and lower the overall rate of homelessness in a community.

Communities can identify areas with the greatest need by looking at which neighborhoods have the highest number of evictions and shelter entries. In the absence of these data, communities can use our new Emergency Rental Assistance Priority Index, which identifies neighborhoods with the highest shares of renters with housing instability risk factors, job losses because of COVID-19, and people of color. This tool can be a starting point to identify neighborhoods with the greatest need for rental assistance resources, and it can help communities apply an equity lens when allocating these resources.

How to help people get the resources they need to stay in their homes

After identifying the people and places most at risk, what’s the best way to actually help people stay in their homes? The evidence is clear: money works. Paying past rent payments and providing ongoing short- or medium-term rental assistance keeps people in housing

Urban Institute researchers estimate about $16 billion in rental assistance is needed per month to alleviate renters’ cost burdens through the COVID-19 crisis. Urban experts also found that the best mechanisms to provide that assistance are through Emergency Solutions Grants and the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Continuing to offer expanded unemployment benefits to eligible people can also help families keep up with rent payments.

The stories of people facing eviction and increases in eviction filings are beginning to show the convergence of a perfect storm of human suffering. When allocating limited rental assistance resources, local leaders should focus on equity, identify the highest-risk households, and proactively provide services through community-based providers in neighborhoods that need them most.

A demonstrator holds up a sign as he listens to speakers during a "Resist Evictions" rally to protest evictions on August 10, 2020 in New York City. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition organized a day of action across New York City for tenants who are struggling to pay rent due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the eviction moratorium which ended on August 6, for an additional 30 days. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.