Housing

Rental aid emerges as new housing fight after eviction ban

Lawmakers and housing advocates are struggling to figure out how to get billions of dollars in rental assistance to tenants who desperately need the help, even with the action taken Tuesday by the Biden administration to extend an eviction moratorium for most of the country.

Congress this year appropriated $46 billion for tenants and landlords in need, but only about $3 billion has reached the intended recipients.

Concerns are now growing that unless a better method of distribution is developed, the U.S. will find itself in the same place two months from now when the new eviction ban expires.

"There are people in my community, in my district, that are reaching out saying, 'How do we access these resources?'" said Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). "We can do this all day long, but if it doesn't filter out to the people that we're doing this for, I didn't accomplish much."

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said state governments and agencies bear some responsibility.

"The fact is states like New York, and red states need to disburse the funds that Congress has already appropriated that I and Cori Bush and [Rep.] Al Green [D-Texas] have appropriated for purposes of making sure that these tenants get rental assistance, and that they are able to pay their landlords who, as well, urgently need resources to continue to do what they're doing."

Similar to many facets of COVID-19 aid, state and local governments are finding it difficult to reach the hardest hit populations.

Housing advocates across the country describe a complicated process that starts with putting the onus on tenants to apply for assistance.

"The things that we're trying to emphasize the most to state and local programs is that they need to make sure that our programs are visible to households that need assistance the most, meaning working with community-based organizations to reach those most marginalized neighborhoods and including neighborhoods of color," Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told The Hill.

In many states, such as New York, the only way to access the application for rental assistance is online, an immediate hurdle for many since broadband internet access is often sparse in the very low-income areas that would benefit from the aid.

"You need to be able to upload PDF documents in order to complete it. It's a very long application that can take one to two hours to complete, and you have to do it all in one setting," said Lucy Block, research and policy associate for the New York City-based Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development.

The Empire State received roughly $2.7 billion from the federal government for rental assistance and began its program on June 1. It has distributed over $20.3 million, less than 1 percent of the total.

"We are having so much trouble getting the money out the door," Block said.

The Treasury Department has given states wide latitude on how to disburse the funds - a level of autonomy that has acted like a double-edged sword, Saadian said.

"The federal government puts up the floor of what's required, and then some cities and states will go beyond that," Saadian said. "Oftentimes, the decisions that they're making are to make their programs less accessible ... slowing down their programs."

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are 484 state and local programs that have access to the federal aid.

However, only 130 allow direct-to-tenant payments. Some landlords have refused to participate, opting instead to initiate eviction proceedings for when the moratorium is lifted.

The eviction crisis, like other societal issues that disproportionately impact people of color, has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, Black and brown people were already the hardest hit by evictions and more likely to rent instead of own.

A study published in December by the Princeton Eviction Lab examined nearly 1,200 counties in the country and showed the stark gap.

"One in every five adult renters in our sample was Black, yet one in every three eviction filings were served to a Black renter," the group wrote.

Block noted that 8 of the 10 ZIP codes in New York City with the highest eviction rates were over 80 percent people of color.

"In March, we found that landlords were filing evictions 3.6 times faster in ZIP codes with the highest rates of death from COVID-19 versus the lowest rates of death," Block added.

"Residents of the ZIP codes hit hardest by COVID-19 are 68.2 percent people of color, compared to 29.2 percent in the neighborhoods hit least hard."

As the clock starts ticking to the next moratorium deadline, advocates fear the rental aid from Washington won't stave off a wave of evictions.

Helen Matthews, who works for Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana, is doubtful that a sufficient amount of the $46 billion will be distributed by Oct. 3.

"It's just unrealistic to think that even by October, when this new federal moratorium times out, that enough rental aid will be distributed in our state to prevent mass evictions," she said.

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