Rent Relief Programs in Major Cities Run Out of Money

Woman going through bills, looking worried

Urbazon/Getty Images

Major cities offering rental assistance during the pandemic are running out of money. Of the nation’s 25 largest metro areas, 48% have already exhausted their funds, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution think tank.

The analysis, released Tuesday, found that 96% of these big cities offer some form of rent relief, but the programs are under strain. The cities, which disperse pools of funds as one-off grants to renters, typically have far more at-risk renters than their funding can serve, Brookings said. The scarce resources are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis or sometimes by lottery or economic need.

“America’s renters are facing a bleak winter,” Jenny Schuetz, a fellow of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote in the report. This is especially true for low-income renters who faced high housing cost burdens even before the COVID-19 pandemic. “For these households, a one-time grant is not enough to offer them stable, affordable homes,” she wrote.

While many renters have been protected by a national moratorium on evictions, it expires on Dec. 31. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy, almost 9 million renters are behind on paying their rent, and nearly 16 million have little to no confidence they can pay next month’s rent on-time, according to the Census Bureau. 

“Rental assistance is imperative to keep them stably housed during the pandemic,” Andrew Aurand, vice president for research for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in an email.

Housing assistance programs have been buckling under the strain of the pandemic for months. As early as October, 30% of 438 rental assistance programs tracked by the National Low Income Housing Coalition had already been closed. Since then, the coalition has added 80 additional programs to its watch list, and reports a similar closure rate. What’s more, recent research suggests that the displacement, overcrowding, and homelessness caused by evictions have led to 10,700 COVID-19-related deaths and more than 433,000 additional cases. 

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are negotiating over the terms of a possible second stimulus package. A bipartisan compromise proposed earlier this month would set aside $25 billion for rental assistance, apparently enough to cover the amount of back rent that households will owe by January according to an estimate by investment bank and advisory firm Stout.