The blog of the Urban Institute
July 14, 2021

Three Ways States and Localities Can Get Rental Assistance to People Faster

With the eviction moratorium slated to end on July 31, disbursing the $47 billion in available emergency rental assistance has become a race against time, and recent data indicate the money will not reach most renters. According to week 31 of the Census Pulse Survey (conducted from May 26 to June 7), 7 million renters are not caught up on their rent, and 3 million renters believe it’s likely they will be evicted.

We analyzed the US Department of the Treasury’s initial data on provision of the emergency rental assistance funds to determine how long it might take to get assistance to all renter households in need. Assuming the Treasury maintains its May 2021 distribution rate (5,153 households per day), it would take 627 days, or about 21 months, to reach all 3.2 million renters who believe they will be evicted. For the rental assistance funds to help those in need, efforts must move faster. 

How did we get here?

After the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the US in early 2020, it took Congress almost a year to provide assistance to renters. The first tranche of aid, $25 billion, was passed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020, followed by another $21.55 billion allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021. Treasury guidance followed in February and May 2021, respectively, more than a full year after the COVID-19 crisis started.

Although the Treasury did get funds out quickly once allocations began, states and localities then had to interpret the Treasury’s guidance and create new programs, which takes time. Many state and local jurisdictions didn’t have rental assistance programs before the pandemic, often because there wasn’t robust federal funding to meet the need. A similar rental relief program from the Great Recession, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, was considered a quickly implemented program when it obligated $1.5 billion in seven months (PDF) and disbursed those dollars within two years. By comparison, state and local programs have already disbursed $1.49 billion between March and May 2021.

What can be done now to prevent millions from being evicted?

The eviction moratorium expires in 17 days, and although some jurisdictions are ensuring that no one is evicted without first exhausting emergency relief options, most jurisdictions don’t have these stopgaps. Even the ones that do have these stopgaps still need to figure out the logistics of getting relief funds to renters.

Recent guidance from the Treasury allows localities to provide assistance directly to tenants, bypassing the initial recommendation to start with the landlord. Treasury guidance allows for written attestation for most of the eligibility requirements, including income, financial hardship during the pandemic, and homelessness or housing instability.

The Treasury has encouraged states and localities to streamline the application process and make it as easy as possible to apply for assistance, especially for people who may have language barriers or a disability. Despite this guidance, most states and localities are not allowing for self-attestation for income, housing instability, and lease or proof of tenancy. About half the Treasury emergency rental assistance programs accepting applications allow for self-attestation. States and localities may need more guarantees from the Treasury to streamline documentation requirements, and the Treasury can extend safe-harbor laws to protect agencies from legal liability or penalties.

States and localities can also speed up efforts get assistance to renters in need through the following actions:

  1. Knock on doors to reach out to those eligible. States and localities will need to find people and encourage them to apply, such as by knocking on doors in neighborhoods with high rates of housing instability. Public housing agencies also have lists of people waiting for housing assistance, many of whom likely qualify for emergency rental assistance. States and localities could send letters to those on these lists, letting households know about relief funds and where to apply.
  2. Allow for self-attestation for all eligibility requirements. States and localities could automatically provide rental assistance to everyone earning less than 50 percent of the area median income who applies and allow written attestation for pandemic-related financial hardship. An overwhelming majority of these households were at risk of homelessness or housing instability before the pandemic and would be eligible for a federal housing voucher if one were available. Having the Treasury extend safe harbor would help states and localities feel more comfortable doing so.
  3. Provide rental assistance in the courts through eviction diversion programs. Tracking eviction filings in local courts and prioritizing rental assistance distribution to affected households can help states and localities get emergency rental assistance funds to renters, including case management and housing navigation services which can also be funded using emergency relief dollars 

Millions of renters are in dire need of assistance to stay in their homes, and billions of dollars, an unprecedented amount of funding, is available to meet that need. Ensuring this money reaches people in time is critical to prevent a massive eviction crisis.


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