Revamped Rent Aid Program Has More Money, Less Red Tape

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The Biden administration has allocated $21.6 billion to state and local rental aid agencies and made new rules designed to get the money into the hands of renters quickly to prevent evictions. 

The money for the Emergency Rental Assistance program, authorized in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan pandemic relief bill, has been sent to the state and local agencies that administer the relief, which gives renters suffering financial hardship the money to pay up to 18 months of rent, the Treasury Department said Friday. The funding comes with new rules that cut down on paperwork, require the agencies to bypass landlords who refuse to participate in the program, and forbid landlords from evicting tenants who use the aid to pay their rent.

The new rules were announced two days after a federal judge struck down a nationwide eviction ban that had been ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opponents of the ban, such as the National Association of Realtors, had argued that the ban was unnecessary because of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which was first launched with an initial $25 billion under the relief bill passed in December. But housing advocates said the ban was necessary to allow time to distribute rental aid. Local agencies that distribute the aid have gotten off to a slow start in setting up their programs, and some landlords have refused to participate in the program, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal.

The rental assistance often comes with strings attached for landlords that were imposed by local programs, such as requiring landlords to forgive late fees or sometimes accept a decreased payment amount, according to data gathered by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a housing advocacy group. Those are conditions property owners might balk at. The new rules require local programs to give rent money directly to tenants if their landlords refuse to participate, and also allows local programs to have tenants apply directly for the aid themselves, rather than reaching out to landlords first, as had been the case previously.

“Many landlords are working with tenants in good faith to secure aid and pay off rental debts. However, it is unacceptable to allow Americans to suffer eviction or homelessness simply because some landlords are turning down Federal aid on their behalf,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

The new rules also prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent in months they are receiving emergency rental assistance, and encourage local programs to require landlords not to evict tenants for 30 to 90 days afterwards.  

To cut down on paperwork, the new Treasury Department guidance encourages local programs to avoid requiring unnecessary documentation from tenants, and even allows programs to deem applicants eligible simply because they live in a low-income neighborhood, rather than verifying their income by some other means.

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