To help Americans pay rent and stay housed after the pandemic eviction protections end, the Biden administration has twice allocated emergency rental assistance totaling $41.6 billion. These funds could help millions of renters avoid eviction and help landlords weather the crisis.
But much of this aid remains unspent because states and localities have struggled to distribute resources. Although the administration just extended the eviction moratorium until the end of July, the risk of eviction still looms, as many renters are behind on rent.
We have been partnering with Avail, an online platform that serves do-it-yourself mom-and-pop landlords, to understand the challenges that landlords and tenants are facing to receive federal rental assistance. Our new analysis of the Avail May survey—to which more than 1,000 landlords and 1,300 tenants responded—found that many landlords and tenants are still unaware of the assistance, and confusion about how to access it abounds.
More than half of renters and 40 percent of landlords are still unaware of federal assistance
Awareness of federal rental assistance has increased since the Avail February survey, which was less than two months after the first federal emergency rental assistance was announced. There was a 12 percentage-point increase among both tenants (from 31 to 43 percent) and landlords (from 48 to 60 percent) who indicated they were aware of the assistance. But awareness is still low, and those who have experienced financial challenges during the pandemic are no more likely to know about the rental assistance than those with no challenges.
Knowing about rental assistance does not mean landlords and tenants are applying
Less than 6 percent of landlords and 11 percent of tenants indicated that they applied for federal emergency rental assistance. As expected, those who missed rental payments or rental income were more likely to apply: among tenants who knew about the federal assistance and have missed a rental payment, 55 percent applied for federal rental assistance. Among landlords who knew about the program and have experienced rental income losses, only 14 percent applied on behalf of their tenants. The reason the rate is so much lower among landlords is because many landlords are confused about who needs to apply. In some states, the landlord can start the application, but the tenant must complete it. In other states, the landlord can complete the application.
Although more landlords than tenants were aware of the federal assistance, only 14 percent of the landlords who were aware said they are eligible for the assistance, 21 percent said they were not eligible, and the remaining 65 percent were unsure about their eligibility. Among landlords who lost rental income in the past three months, 56 percent were unsure about their eligibility. This shows that just knowing about emergency rental assistance is not enough for landlords to apply.
Among those who applied to the federal emergency rental assistance program, less than 40 percent of landlords and about a third of tenants said they were approved. The remainder said they were not approved yet or did not know about their approval status. The delay in the approval process also likely affected the application rate, because it minimizes the positive word-of-mouth endorsements from friends and relatives.
Uncertainty about receiving payments and complicated eligibility criteria are discouraging application
Among tenants who are aware of the federal assistance but chose not to apply, nearly half said it was because they were uncertain they’d receive the rental assistance payment. The second-most-selected answer was the complicated eligibility criteria, followed by difficulty finding available rental assistance and communicating with landlords.
For landlords who were aware but chose not to apply, both complicated eligibility criteria and communicating with tenants were the two most commonly mentioned answers. About 20 percent of the landlords selected uncertainty about receiving rental assistance payments, preparing and filing documents, and having to waive evictions during the period of assistance.
When asked what state and local government can do to get them to apply, tenants were most likely to select “providing clearer communication of eligibility criteria and requirements” (46 percent), followed by “allowing payments to be sent directly to tenants” (40 percent), and “creating a simpler and more accessible application” (38 percent). Interestingly, though only 15 percent selected “allowing undocumented households to apply for assistance,” 26 percent of Hispanic renters chose this answer.
For landlords, the most selected answer was “providing clearer communication on who (landlord or tenant) is responsible for applying for emergency rental assistance” (54 percent), followed by “creating a simpler and more accessible application” (50 percent) and “proving clearer communication of landlord and tenant eligibility” (39 percent).
How can tenants and landlords gain awareness?
The Avail May survey results show how much more work is needed to educate landlords and tenants about rental assistance.
For tenants who were aware of emergency rental assistance programs, internet searching was the most common source of information, followed by promotional ads, and state-sponsored outreach through phone calls and letters. Some tenants also reported receiving information through their landlord. This indicates that developing multiple strategies to reach people in need could be helpful. The confusion about how to apply, what is needed, and whether applicants will receive funding in time also proves that application information needs to be clearer.
“Many of the people who need rental assistance the most don’t have access to ways of learning about the gov’t programs. If you’re constantly in the cycle of eviction, you likely don’t have stable Wi-Fi (if you have Wi-Fi at all).... You also likely don’t have the luxury of time to read about [emergency rental assistance programs].”
– Renter, Illinois
This will likely not be the last crisis we experience, so the pandemic offers an opportunity to learn about and invest in better infrastructure, better systems, and improved communication to help mom-and-pop landlords and tenants in financial need.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.