Red Tape Holds Back Eviction Relief Aid

Bailiff Carries Out Eviction
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On March 31, Mona Ogas got the call she’d been awaiting six weeks: Her application had been approved, and the Texas Rent Relief Program would pay more than $6,000 to her landlord for the rent she had fallen behind on and cover her through June.

“That’s wonderful,” Ogas told them. “But they’ve already evicted me.” 

Key Takeaways

  • An unprecedented federal Emergency Rental Assistance program is available to pay rent and utilities for tenants who are struggling financially due to the economic downturn. 
  • The ERA program, which is managed by local agencies, has been hampered by paperwork requirements, a lack of knowledge, and other factors.
  • The aid is moving too slowly to prevent a “wave of evictions” at the end of the month when a federal eviction moratorium expires, advocates say.

Six days earlier, Ogas had been kicked out of the one-bedroom apartment where she lived in Fort Worth, Texas. She put her possessions in a storage unit and moved to a room in a house belonging to a friend of a friend. It was a situation the 58-year-old former healthcare marketing professional had never thought she would find herself in. After graduating from college, she had worked steadily until she was laid off in March 2020 when the economic downturn hit. Unemployment benefits weren’t enough to pay the bills, even after she started supplementing that income by working gig delivery jobs at Doordash and Uber Eats.

“It was a traumatic experience,” she said. “There’s no amount of money you can put on the toll this has taken on my physical and mental health.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Emergency Rental Assistance, a $47 billion federal program created at the end of last year, was meant to help people just like Ogas by stepping in to pay the rent and utility bills on their behalf. Not only that, but a federal eviction moratorium was supposed to forbid landlords from evicting people who fell behind on rent during the economic downturn and its aftermath. Ogas brought up both measures at her eviction hearing, but it didn’t help—the judge ordered her removed from the apartment anyway, she said.

Ogas’s case illustrates the bureaucratic obstacles government relief efforts have encountered as officials scramble to distribute the aid and help renters stave off eviction before the federal moratorium expires July 31. While the programs have distributed at least $3 billion and helped 633,000 families through June, according to the most recent data available from the Treasury Department, officials and activists say red tape, a lack of awareness about the program, and a patchwork of local rules among at least 458 local agencies distributing the relief have slowed the process of getting the funds to those who need them.

“I’ve lost complete trust in the system,” Ogas said. “I had no safety net. I had a government that told me they were going to be there to support me, and they fell flat.” 

A Mess of Paperwork in Texas

What happened to Ogas is exactly the situation the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the agency that’s overseeing distribution of federal rent relief in the state, is trying to prevent. The Texas Rent Relief program, like other such efforts around the country, is funded by the federal government, but the nitty-gritty of getting that money to renters is up to state agencies like the Texas housing department and a hodgepodge of locally run programs. 

“Having someone evicted before money arrives is one of the worst-case scenarios we can face,” said Bobby Wilkinson, executive director of the state agency. “I couldn’t imagine being months behind on rent and not knowing how you’re going to get the money to pay it. When you’re in a hole like that, getting out of it is just not realistic without some kind of extra help or windfall.”

When the ERA was created as part of a relief bill signed by President Donald Trump in December, Texas, like other states, had to build a program to distribute the aid completely from scratch. Texas did better than most, according to a late June report from the U.S. Treasury Department that singled it out as one of the quickest to distribute rental assistance. By July 26, Texas had distributed more than $593 million of a $1.3 billion allocation, and helped 95,000 households. (In addition, 36 local programs had been allocated $700 million, and their progress is harder to track, according to an analysis by Texas Housers, a housing advocacy group.)

Documentation Demands, Technical Glitches

The statewide program is experiencing growing pains, Wilkinson said. Paperwork has been a particular challenge: Applicants must submit proof of income as well as supporting documentation such as utility bills. “It ends up being a more complicated process than we would like and I’m sure our tenants would like,” he said. “It’s a greater amount of work than we thought it would be.”

Out of more than 16,000 applications in an initial review process as of July 7, more than 12,800 had outstanding requests for missing documentation, according to a Texas Rent Relief report.

Not only that, but there were technical glitches early on. Ogas said she had to re-submit her entire application after Texas Rent Relief changed computer systems. After Ogas complained to the program about the length of time it took to process her application, an official replied in an email that the program had suffered from delays in its first few weeks. 

Paperwork is also hindering various local programs around the state, said Erin Hahn, a research analyst at Texas Housers who wrote a report on the local programs. Some have streamlined the process by being flexible about the documentation they require and have had more success getting money out to renters, Hahn wrote in a report. For example, by July, San Antonio had distributed 35% of its first round of emergency funding, more than any other program, because it allowed applicants to write letters explaining their situation if they couldn’t provide hard proof. But some jurisdictions stuck to strict paperwork requirements, such as Arlington, which had only given out 1% of its available funding.

The U.S. Treasury released guidelines in May encouraging local programs to be flexible about documentation, but not every local program has followed those recommendations.

The upshot is that the money comes too late for many renters in financial trouble.

“Because of long program wait times, some applicants of the Texas Rent Relief program are evicted during the weeks (or months) that they wait for their application to be approved,” Hahn wrote.

‘Too Good to be True’

 In Virginia, another state cited by the Treasury Department as a success story, the state Rent Relief Program had distributed $268 million out of $525 million in funding through June 16, assisting 41,000 households. The program was able to move quickly because Virginia had launched its own rent relief initiative earlier in the year that was able to seamlessly take over administering the federal funds, said Pam Kestner, acting deputy director of housing at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. But while on its face, the program is a win-win for tenants and landlords alike, Kestner said overcoming hesitation among renters has been a major sticking point.

“The challenge is getting the word out and letting these households know that it’s not too good to be true,” Kestner said. 

Some tenants have a hard time believing the government would just pay their rent with no strings attached, she said. And many families that could use the help are just hesitant to ask for it. 

“Some of the households that we’ve heard from have never had to reach out before,” Kestner said. The economic crisis “has hit all walks of life. Some of the households that have reached out to us have done so reluctantly.” 

Distribution Bottlenecks Are Countrywide

The difficulties that officials are encountering in Texas and Virginia are similar to problems slowing the program down all over the country, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition released July 21. Many renters who could use the help do not know about it, the report said. Not only that, but low-income households most likely to need the help are also the most likely to struggle with online applications, the report noted. And many more are likely to simply give up when faced with paperwork requirements they can’t fulfill, or worry how the application will affect their immigration status.

Still, the ERA has the potential to “help many renters erase their arrears and remain stably housed,” the report concluded, "if it reaches them before national and local government officials allow eviction moratoriums to expire and the number of evictions to ramp up.”

The sunsetting eviction moratorium is itself fraught with paperwork requirements—at-risk tenants must sign a declaration in order to claim protection. The ticking clock is more meaningful in some places than others. In Virginia, statewide anti-eviction measures will likely prevent a flood of evictions, Kestner predicted.  But in Texas, advocates are bracing for what could happen when the moratorium runs out.

“We expect to see a wave of evictions,” said Hahn, the Texas Housers researcher.

The concern is shared at high levels of government.

“Time is of the essence here. Too many tenants are at risk of eviction, and the eviction moratorium will expire at the end of the month,” said  Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo at a White House virtual summit on eviction prevention June 30.

Eviction Wave Is Already Sweeping Away Some Renters

While the machinery to save hard-pressed renters from eviction is mostly new and a work in progress, the long-standing court system that moves evictions forward has continued to operate, since the federal moratorium bars only physical evictions, not court filings. Nationwide, the moratorium has lowered eviction cases but not halted them, according to research from Princeton’s Eviction Lab research group that showed eviction filings were down 65% in cities where it tracked evictions between March 2020 and the end of the year.

And as Ogas’ case shows, some people are still being physically evicted in spite of the moratorium. Ally Harris, an educator and communication specialist who observes court proceedings for Texas Housers, said she has personally watched around 1,000 cases proceed in Houston courts over the last few months, with many ending the same way Ogas’ did, with a renter being forced to leave their home, sometimes with devastating consequences.

“One of the women I’ve been talking to, she was evicted and she had to give up her son while she sleeps in her car,” Harris said. “It can make the difference between homelessness and a place to stay.”

Have a question, comment, or story to share? You can reach Diccon at dhyatt@thebalance.com.