Aid Rolling Out, But May Be Too Slow for Some Renters

young person sitting in the silhouette of window

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Just over two months after the U.S. government created the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a $25 billion fund to help households that can’t make rent and utility payments during the pandemic, only about $5.5 billion has been sent to the local programs that manage the distribution of relief thus far, according to an independent analysis by a nonprofit. 

The program, established by the last relief bill passed in December, is intended to help renters struggling amid the pandemic’s employment crisis, amounting to more than 18% of all renting households, according to one recent estimate by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Of the 68 tracked state and local programs that administer the relief, 15 states, 28 counties, and eight cities had begun accepting applications as of March 4, according to Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the nonprofit housing advocacy organization that provided the analysis.

“There are a lot of programs to be opened yet, but we are getting there,” Aurand said. “It’s taking a little bit of time for the programs to get up and running, but some of those that have opened up have seen significant needs.” 

The Treasury Department, which manages the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, evictions are continuing nationwide despite a national moratorium forbidding landlords from kicking out tenants for not paying rent. Since the moratorium was put in place in September, evictions have been reduced to 50% of their historical average, according to a new estimate by research organization Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The moratorium is set to expire on March 31. 

“I’m sure that there are renters [at] high risk of an eviction filing while we are trying to get these moneys to them,” Aurand said.

The slow rollout is not equated to a lack of need. In fact, three programs have already stopped taking applications—Orange County in California, DeKalb County in Georgia, and Washington County in Arkansas—because they received so many so quickly, according to Aurand’s research.

Instead, the delays are due to tie-ups at the federal level, according to the National Low Income Housing Center. In an effort to assist in the process, the Treasury Department issued guidance to states and localities about how to administer the program on Jan. 19. The guidelines required potential recipients of the program to provide numerous documents, including proof that their income had been reduced because of COVID-19, past-due or eviction notices, and other information. After housing advocates protested just two days after the release of the initial guidance, the new administration issued an updated document on Feb. 22, requiring renters to only attest in writing that they are experiencing hardship. 

Many program administrators had been waiting for the new guidance, Aurand said, and he expects to see more programs get up and running now that the rules have been clarified. Once the programs start up, it should make the newest round of $20 billion in rental relief provided by the American Rescue Plan easier to distribute.