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Activist groups and labor unions participate in a May Day march for worker and human rights in Los Angeles, California, on May 1. | David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Rent relief was the solution to a possible wave of evictions. It ran headfirst into reality.

Everyone agreed that rent relief was the only way to stop a wave of millions of Americans from being evicted.

The logic was simple: Give people who were struggling during the pandemic the money to pay their rent, and landlords would have no reason to evict for nonpayment. That simplicity, and the remarkable unity from the landlord lobby and tenant advocates alike in calling for this type of relief, led Congress to allocate $25 billion in rental assistance in December. Less than three months later, in early March, they allocated another $21.55 billion for the same purpose.

But despite this unprecedented level of federal aid, people like Emilie Ashbes are still in crisis.

“I’m terrified. I’m so terrified to spend money,” the 31-year-old Floridian told me as she shopped at Walmart for household supplies. “I literally donated eggs to [make rent]. I’m selling off body parts.”

Ashbes, who says she works 11- or 12-hour shifts without a break at a Texas Roadhouse to afford her $1,300-a-month rent, didn’t even know she could apply for rent relief.

Technically, she couldn’t, until the week before last when the state opened up its rent relief application process, the Tampa Bay Times reports. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County, where Ashbes resides, has already closed its program for applications.

That disconnect between Ashbes’s situation and the federal relief that was supposed to help renters like her explains why people are sounding the alarm about a potential deluge of evictions if the federal moratorium is allowed to expire (or is struck down) in the next few weeks.

Getting money into the hands of renters has been exceedingly complicated — the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found over 340 different programs attempting to administer the federal aid. Some programs require onerous documentation; others don’t make it easy for landlords to apply and most put the onus on tenants to provide extensive proof of need. And Ashbes is far from unique; many advocates Vox spoke with said tenants often don’t even know the aid is available to them. All of this underscores the difficulty of aiding those at highest risk of eviction.

 Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
Community members protest evictions outside the Bronx housing court in New York on August 10, 2020.

The context of this difficulty is that the federal government has never before provided so much aid to renters. The unparalleled action taken by former President Donald Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enact an eviction moratorium, in addition to the extended unemployment benefits, the economic impact payments, and funding in the CARES Act for housing stability, has kept millions of families afloat. Now, the tens of billions in rent relief is an opportunity to keep millions of people in their homes, and an extraordinary challenge to states and localities, many of which have never administered this type of aid before.

But with the federal eviction moratorium expiring at the end of June, and several judges attempting to strike it down before then, states may have mere weeks to get money into the hands of renters before eviction processes start up again in earnest.

Not a single expert or advocate Vox spoke with believes the money will be allocated by then.

Billions in back rent is owed. States are struggling to distribute a fraction of that in rental assistance.

“The money came late,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Vox. “The money came when tenants had already accrued nearly $50 billion in rent arrears. So now we’re playing a game of catch-up.”

Estimates about the amount of back rent owed across the country range from $8.4 billion to $52.6 billion, meaning that the $45 billion allocated should cover the vast majority of need, especially considering that renters have indirectly received other forms of aid from the federal government.

The vast majority of renters have figured out how to make rent payments. According to the National Multi-Family Housing Council’s rent payment tracker, “80.0 percent of apartment households made a full or partial rent payment by May 6.” The previous month’s data shows that by the end of the month, 95 percent of renters had made a full or partial rent payment.

Research by the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Research Institute for Housing America found similarly heartening news: While 23.7 percent of renters have missed at least one payment over the past year, only 8.6 percent of renters have missed more than two payments.

But that doesn’t mean that over 90 percent of renters are doing fine. In order to make those payments, many renters have had to deplete their savings, max out their credit cards, or take on loans from family, friends, or payday lenders.

And it’s not clear when rental assistance will reach those people.

While the Treasury Department does not require someone to be behind on their rent to qualify for assistance (according to its fact sheet), programs may add their own requirements for eligibility. Some of those requirements might exclude renters like Matthew Turner, who went to extraordinary lengths to remain in that group who’ve missed only one or zero payments.

Turner, a renter living in North Carolina, told Vox that his application for relief was initially accepted by a program in Wake County, but he was eventually denied aid after he paid rent.

“We sold all of our belongings in our apartment to pay the rent,” Turner told Vox. Now, he says, he’s caught in an impossible place. If he doesn’t pay his rent, he’s at risk of receiving an eviction notice — a black mark on any renter’s history that can make it harder to get housing in the future — but without showing proof that he’s behind on his rent, he’s unable to get help to stay solvent.

“[My partner and I] have debated whether we should leave independently or if we should stay and be evicted and never be able to get another apartment for the next 10 years,” he told me. The eviction moratorium hasn’t stopped some landlords from filing evictions or, in some cases, even harassing tenants to leave. Turner doesn’t want it to get that far, but if he doesn’t get help, he tells me that they will find themselves homeless once again.

Turner’s story might seem to indicate that these programs are running low on funds, but all reports indicate that very little has actually made it into the pockets of at-risk renters. The Treasury Department is collecting data on how much states have allocated and to whom, but it has yet to be released. Tenant advocates I spoke with in California and Washington, DC, told me they didn’t personally know anyone who had actually received aid.

Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs told me that it has distributed more than $4 million in rental assistance funding to landlords and tenants; the state has received over $552 million for that purpose. Delaware’s State Housing Authority told me that it has distributed $40,000 in rental assistance — 0.02 percent of its allocated funds. Idaho’s Housing and Finance Association told me it has distributed $6.1 million of the $175 million it received from the federal government. Colorado’s dashboard shows $2.8 million has been approved from the $247 million it has received. Arizona’s dashboard shows $4.38 million has been disbursed out of the $289 million it has received.

More has reached tenants — those state numbers don’t include the spending done by programs at the county and city level — but it indicates the pace of these programs may not be fast enough to meet the urgent, coming crisis.

The New York Times recently reported that California has only paid out $1 million of its $355 million in apportioned funds, and Texas, which has received over $1 billion, had only paid 250 households after 45 days. Some states are not even accepting applications for emergency rental assistance, including South Carolina and New York.

“Of the programs that are open, altogether they account for about $18 billion of the $25 billion allocation. That’s the amount of money that’s available from programs that are open, accepting applications, reviewing applications, and writing checks,” Yentel explained.

Programs at the county and city level in these states have been operating, so it doesn’t mean all residents are completely without options, but it underscores how dire the situation is, just six weeks from when the moratorium expires.

Everyone agrees it’s an emergency. So what’s taking so long to get the money out?

Time, knowledge, and bureaucracy: These are the challenges facing rent relief programs racing to dole out funds.

States and localities have never before had to set up rent relief programs to distribute federal aid. To do so, programs needed to hire staff, set up websites, comply with any additional regulations or goals set by their state legislatures, and conduct outreach. Even with best efforts, most experts Vox spoke with were skeptical that it would have been possible for programs to move fast enough to get all the aid out the door before the end of June.

But that also reflects government’s lack of engagement with some of the most marginalized members in their communities.

“One of the things that this pandemic has made very clear is that there’s a lot that we don’t know about our housing market,” Vincent Reina, director of the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “The vast majority of cities don’t have full registries of every owner in their city. … It shows we often don’t know who owns properties and what’s going on with these properties or which tenants are experiencing financial hardship.”

If states had been collecting detailed information about where struggling tenants are and how much back rent was accumulating, it’s likely this process would have moved faster.

 Robert Bumsted/AP
Candida Uraga, a renter in New York City, says she has drained her savings trying to keep up with rent after being laid off from her job as a teaching assistant.
 Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Demonstrators in California call for lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom to pass rent forgiveness and stronger eviction protections on January 25.

But there are some success stories. A representative from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, for instance, told me that by May 10 the state had paid out $18.2 million and 9,000 applications had been approved. When I checked back nine days later, the representative told me they had approved more than 1,300 additional applications and sent a total of $25.9 million in payments. The state’s total allocation is $200 million, so they still have a way to go, but they credit their progress to the fact that they “offered a unified application that was optimized for mobile” as well as measuring how long it was taking to process applications and making it “as easy as possible for applicants and landlords or utility companies” to submit required documentation.

“It seems clear that the places that have really committed themselves to analyzing how things are going as they are going and making course corrections along the way have been most able to get dollars out the door,” Reina explained.

The second hurdle is knowledge. As Ashbes told me, even though she’d been trying to get help from the government over the past year (applying successfully for unemployment), she was unaware of the rent relief available to people like her.

When I told her about the opportunity to apply for rent relief, she sounded hopeless but said she would look into applying.

“I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to be doing, but I have no idea what it is,” she said. “Like, somehow it’s my fault but I don’t know what I can do. I’m willing to do anything, I am doing everything I can do. It’s breaking down my body, it’s breaking down my soul. I considered going back to dancing, like stripping, but I’m scared that my substance abuse problem will return.”

Ashbes isn’t the only one who doesn’t know that billions have been allocated for rent relief. Shakeara Mingo, an organizer with ONE DC and a member of the Cancel Rent coalition, told me there are tenants who don’t know to apply.

She’s even more concerned, though, about how difficult it is to apply even when tenants are made aware. Because programs can be audited to ensure they spent the money in the way the federal government intended, administrators are pressured to collect a lot of information and invest resources and time extensively verifying that people are actually in need before they give them money.

There are two parts to this problem. One is unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, like Massachusetts originally requiring applicants to produce their physical birth certificates, and the other is necessary bureaucratic hurdles— there has to be some way for programs to determine who needs help and how much.

The interplay between getting money out fast and making sure that no one is gaming the system (or, more generously, that the money is getting to the people who need it the most) is not new. Nor is it easy to simply cast blame on the individual programs or the federal government — it is inherently difficult to aid indigent residents. But it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the simplicity of depositing stimulus payments into the accounts of tens of millions of Americans, which did not require residents to prove anything to access the funds quickly. People are quick to point out that there have never before been rent relief programs in most states, but that begs the question — why not?

The Treasury Department put out clarifications on May 7 to help make the process less onerous and clarify what types of documentation are needed, but, for example, in Florida, where Ashbes lives, the following documents are required for all members of an applying household:

  • Identification (driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport)
  • Current lease agreement or other proof of rental agreement
  • Documentation of annual income or monthly income
  • Proof of eligibility documents for SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, subsidized housing, or low-income housing if you qualify
  • Documentation of unemployment benefits or proof of reduction in household income or proof of increased costs due to Covid-19
  • Notice of past due rent, lease termination, or eviction, or condemnation order or failed inspection report from local government

Having these documents at hand is no simple feat, especially for people like Ashbes who have had to move during the last year or others who may not have formal documentation of their work or their rental agreement.

“It’s a really convoluted process,” said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for the California organization Tenants Together. “People who are most impacted by economic hardship during Covid-19, they often don’t have extensive documentation of hardships or job losses.”

The evidence that people are either unaware or discouraged due to an onerous application process shows in the application numbers. As of May 12, in Georgia, just 5,000 people had completed applications to the state program and Delaware had received 5,145 applications; by May 23, Arizona had received 2,889 applications. and Colorado had received 8,510.

“The intent of all of these reporting requirements is to make sure no one’s ‘gaming the system,’” Singh explained, “but the more requirements you put on these programs, [the more] people who really are in need fall through the cracks.”

Mike Flood, senior vice president at the Mortgage Bankers Association, strongly agreed with the need to reduce documentation requirements: “Let’s understand that it’s most important to get money into people’s hands. … Every time we put a restriction on the program, it makes a borrower or, quite frankly, a renter hesitant about taking hold of the program.”

What will happen if the money doesn’t get out in time?

Some advocates are pushing to extend the eviction moratorium until these programs can adequately assess who needs help and how to get it to them.

Even if the moratorium is extended again (and the numerous lawsuits against the order remain unsuccessful), the underlying debt will continue to accumulate, and at some point, landlords will reach their limit.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “41 percent of all rental units are owned by individual investors” or “mom and pop landlords.” That means these landlords are unlikely to be able to weather months of nonpayment and still keep up with their own expenses.

Benny is a landlord in California who bought his first house last year before widespread Covid-19 shutdowns. To make his mortgage payments, he rented out a spare room to a tenant. After the moratorium began, he says, his tenant stopped paying.

“We needed an eviction moratorium,” Benny, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy, told me. “I definitely don’t think we should be allowing wide-scale evictions, but I also think the way that small landlords have been treated is unacceptable. … Candidly, I’m going to be forced to sell my house as soon as my tenant moves out. I’m never going to be a landlord ever again after this situation.”

 Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images
On March 1, the day that New York’s Covid-19 moratorium on rent expired, tenant rights activists held a demonstration outside the court building where eviction cases are starting up again.

Benny says he and his tenant have applied for rent relief, but he’s skeptical that it will help. He’s also frustrated that in order to accept rent relief, California is requiring landlords to waive 20 percent of what they’re entitled to in back rent: “To me, that’s kind of punitive for no real justification, other than just viewing landlords as some kind of bad entity.”

This isn’t just bad because these small landlords are struggling; it’s bad because small landlords disproportionately provide affordable housing.

Research from the Urban Institute shows that the average rent in small rental properties is less than “the median for single-family rentals, medium-size apartment buildings, and large apartment buildings.” And in 2018, “the median income for a two-to-four-unit landlord was $67,000.” Renters of these units are predominantly Black and Hispanic, and they have the lowest median household income when compared to renters of other types of properties.

If landlords are not provided with enough relief, it could strain America’s already limited affordable housing stock, which is approaching depletion following the Great Recession.

“It’s critical that we get the dollars out as quickly as possible to stabilize [landlords],” Bob Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, warned. “We had a housing affordability crisis going into Covid-19; if we come out of this with substantially less rental units out there, we’re going to have a situation that’s going to be far worse than what we had before.”

But in all likelihood, the eviction moratorium will come to an end soon — increasingly accessible vaccinations have made the justification for the order (that evictions and overcrowding in homes would lead to the spread of Covid-19) less compelling.

Jamie Woodwell, vice president of research and economics at the Mortgage Bankers Association, argues that even if there is a spike in evictions, it has to be contextualized in the remarkable decline in evictions over the past year: “It’s going to be really important to know what we’re comparing the new eviction levels to.”

However, even though the federal government’s policies are unprecedented, leaving millions of people vulnerable to evictions even as the money to keep them housed has already been allocated is a remarkable indictment of the government’s capacity to act.

 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, March 2021

Author: Jerusalem Demsas

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