Billions in Rental Assistance Undelivered
By Shelby R. King –
July 21, 2021
After a monthslong game of “kick the ban,” the eviction moratorium issued last September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to expire July 31 after two extensions (one in March and another last-minute, last-time stopgap reprieve at the end of June). CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this will be the “final extension of the moratorium,” which, when it ends, will leave millions of renters at risk of losing their homes and millions in federal rental assistance money undelivered.
About 15 percent of renters in the U.S. owe back rent. On average, they owe about $3,400, according to the National Equity Atlas, though many owe tens of thousands. Those renters represent more than 11 million adults who will be left vulnerable to eviction once the eviction ban lifts Aug. 1. Of those households facing an eviction threat, the most at-risk are headed by Black and Brown people, and single moms. For instance, workforce participation among women plummeted by 57 percent during the pandemic, and 80 percent of the 1.1 million Americans who left the workforce in September 2020—when schools started back up while the pandemic raged—were women. Both demographics are evicted at a disproportionately high rate: Black adults make up just 21 percent of America’s renters, but are listed as defendants in 35 percent of all eviction filings, and studies have shown that the probability of a household with children receiving an eviction notice is “significantly higher” than those without.
How 2020 Predictions Panned Out
While 11 million is a big number, it sounds like far fewer than the 30 million to 40 million individuals estimated to be at risk of eviction in an August 2020 report published by the National Low Income Housing Council and the Aspen Institute, and coauthored by Emily Benfer, a Wake Forest University law professor who chairs the American Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task force Committee on Eviction, and is co-creator of The Eviction Lab COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard.
The 30 million to 40 million estimate included both adults and children, Benfer says, and the questions asked in the original survey have evolved to better address current known and unknown factors. One in five households with children is behind on rent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, so the total number of people at risk could still approach the levels predicted late last summer.
In addition to the millions of families facing displacement now, thousands were kicked out of their homes as the pandemic raged, despite the moratorium. According to Eviction Lab data, in the six states and 31 cities being tracked, landlords filed more than 444,000 evictions during the pandemic. In Phoenix, Arizona, landlords filed nearly 30,000 evictions during the pandemic. And courts across the country continued evicting tenants in defiance of the moratorium.
Because as many as one-third of renters who receive an eviction notice leave at the first sign the landlord wants them out, without putting up a fight, possibly tens of thousands more moved during the pandemic without showing up in the current eviction data.
“That doesn’t mean they found stable and decent housing,” says Benfer. “They probably doubled up, went to a shelter, or are transient and moving from couch to couch.”
Folks whose first instinct is to vacate when they receive an eviction notice are also likely unaware rent assistance money is available to them. As of May, just 43 percent of renters and 60 percent of landlords knew the federal government would pay their pandemic hardship-related back rent. And of those who know federal money is out there, just 11 percent of tenants and less than 6 percent of landlords had applied.
How Government Intervention Worked
Even counting the tenants who were displaced despite the moratorium in place, and including the backlog of eviction cases building up, nationwide eviction rates plummeted during the pandemic, according to Tim Thomas, research director at UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project (UDP).
“When the pandemic hit and the moratoriums went into effect, the research showed that eviction filings and notices and lockouts all went drastically down,” says Thomas. “And we knew that when [the moratorium] ends there’s going to be a whiplash. How bad is that whiplash going to be?”
Thomas, whose work has focused on evictions since 2013, is part of a team that set out to analyze existing data to model “possible post-pandemic patterns for household forced mobility.” The UDP team created a Housing Precarity Risk Model (HPRM) to identify census tracts that were in particularly urgent need of resources to prevent eviction and displacement. The HPRM defines housing “precarity” as the amount of resilience a household has to economic and environmental shocks. A household’s precarity is calculated in this model by analyzing a metro area’s unemployment rates and preexisting eviction and displacement risks.
“One of the most important dynamics of maintaining housing is employment,” says Thomas. “The keystone of this recession is unemployment of low-income households, who are at the highest risk of eviction.”
The model found that 22 million households are at moderate to high risk of displacement. It also shows that 44 percent of all U.S. renters live in neighborhoods with a high level of housing precarity, 67 percent of Black-headed and 57 percent of Latinx-headed households live in areas with moderate to high precarity levels, and 73 percent of Black renters live in high-eviction-risk neighborhoods.
In the weeks since President Joe Biden’s administration extended the nationwide eviction moratorium, several mainstream news outlets have declared that although the nation avoided a wave of evictions last year when unemployment spiked and families’ income tanked, the outlook is dire once the eviction ban is lifted for good. The good news is that federal rental assistance money will cover renters’ late rent. But it won’t cover next month’s rent, or the month after. And while many Americans are headed back to work, unemployment rates are still high, COVID-19 infection rates in many places are on the rise, and low-income workers are still struggling to find adequate, reliable childcare so they’re able to work.
The child care credit payments approved in March with the passage of the American Jobs Plan will help some cash-strapped renters pay their bills, much as the rounds of stimulus payments did. In fact, part of the reason many renters are still housed is because the government did step in, making the amount of back rent owed less than originally projected.
“The stimulus funds appear to have made an enormous impact on people’s ability to pay their rent,” says Benfer. Nearly 60 percent of renters used the first stimulus check to pay rent. More worryingly, adds Benfer, “renters used unemployment insurance, credit cards, and took on personal debt to stay housed.” So those who are not behind on rent, or are less behind than they might have been, may also be facing other financial challenges, making job loss or eviction even more dangerous.
Data from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) Rent Payment Tracker tool supports Benfer’s assertion that tenants throughout the pandemic and economic crisis prioritized paying rent. “Our data showed that rent payments declined only a few percentage points below normal, even during the height of the crisis,” says Paula Cino, NMHC’s vice president of construction, development, and land use policy. “We attribute that to some very successful economic stabilization, and because of that we just never saw the deterioration of renters being able to meet their housing obligations.”
Will Rent Relief Do the Job?
The massive amount of rent relief money approved by the federal government in March should have taken some of the urgency out of the nation’s eviction problem. Yet, months after the cash arrived, many states are still scrambling to figure out how to distribute it.
In April, about 97,000 households received federal rent relief funds. In May, that number was up to 160,000. While states are ramping up distribution efforts, many appear to be missing the mark, considering 1.2 million households reported being “very likely to face eviction in the next two months.” One study found that more than $425 million of the $2.6 billion that states earmarked from the CARES Act in March 2020 for rent relief never made it to tenants or landlords.
The federal government issued more than 20 times that amount—$46.55 billion—specifically for rental assistance money in the American Rescue Plan to help tenants catch up on months of unpaid rent and utility bills, but the bulk of that money too hasn’t yet made it to renters. Unless the trajectory changes, some of it won’t make it to renters in time—and some renters may never get help.
States have rolled out rent relief distribution programs at varying speeds, with varying success levels, and also with varying amounts of local political support, according to The Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scoreboard. Some states have been focused with their efforts and nimble with their programs, allowing more money to get out faster. But others are replicating last year’s problems with slow rollouts, strict eligibility and documentation, barriers to access, and lack of outreach.
For example, as of publication, the site shows that of 451 state programs in NLIHC’s Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance Dashboard, only 223 allow tenant self-attestation of hardship, and only 60 allow self-attestation of income, both measures that allow the programs to reach more renters in need. One study found that the application methods, many of which were online only, and short time allowed to complete an application posed barriers to renters with the most immediate need of assistance. Additionally, some property owners and landlords outright declined federal assistance money, citing participatory conditions and restrictions.
“The goal here should be for programs to be as low barrier as possible,” says Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). “So, cities and states need to get out of their own way by really streamlining these programs and focusing on prevention, which is working with state and local courts so that eviction diversion programs are working hand in hand with emergency rental assistance providers to help people who are immediately facing eviction.”
The process may yet turn around. In California, for example, the state government has taken steps to reduce barriers to access. “We’re seeing some improvements that cities and states are ramping up their efforts and the dollars are starting to flow, but there’s a lot more they could be doing to make sure there’s really robust marketing and outreach, especially to marginalized communities,” Saadian says. “There’s more work to be done to make sure the resources are accessible, the applications are easy to understand, not too lengthy, and don’t require a lot of documentation. Those sorts of things slow down the process of getting the money out the door and make it harder for the most marginalized renters to get help.”
Outreach is also key. Saadian says the federal government should bring together stakeholders like the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to increase outreach and public awareness, so that landlords and tenants know the money is there and understand how to get it, much like the Biden administration is doing to increase vaccination knowledge and rates.
Shanti Singh, communications and legislative coordinator for California tenants’ rights group Tenants Together, agrees. “The administration is doing outreach to marginalized populations trying to encourage them to get vaccinated,” she says. “So they’ve got outreach programs, but no one seems to have a program for rent relief.”
As they’re piecing together distribution and delivery programs, some state and local governments are trying to enact measures such as setting up eviction diversion programs in local courts to temporarily keep landlords from booting tenants after the moratorium lifts but before rent relief arrives.
Some localities are considering enlisting a mandatory waiting period after landlords file an eviction in order to provide the time and resources needed to connect tenants and landlords with rent relief money and facilitate other options besides displacement. Other areas are ramping up and staffing existing legal aid programs. And, even with all this time to prepare, some places still aren’t doing much.
The Biden administration at its June 30 Eviction Prevention Summit, held just after the latest moratorium extension was announced, offered guidelines for states, which, along with a providing a directive to “accelerate and broaden state and local delivery of emergency rental assistance,” included urging local courts to participate in eviction diversion efforts. But the extension came with no mandates, leaving it up to states, counties, and local jurisdictions to get the cash out and keep the tenants in.
“We still have this last remaining chance to prevent evictions for millions of families across the country, but if we don’t act now [the eviction moratorium] will all have been for nothing,” says Benfer. “These families will immediately be pushed off that cliff into long-term housing instability and poor health outcomes that will change the trajectory of their lives for the worse.”
If millions of renters are evicted, the spike in homelessness will increase demand on social and public services, from police to fire to shelters to emergency waste services, and some local governments don’t seem to recognize the correlation, says Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.
“The impact on families and children is going to be devastating. And in some communities, they recognize this and ask, ‘What can we do locally to mitigate this or prevent it altogether?’ And then there’s other communities where it’s like, ‘We don’t care,’” Dunn says. “But it affects the whole community. You’re disrupting the schools that your own kids go to. You’re disrupting your own workplace, or where you buy goods and services. You have stores that have to close because their employee base has been disrupted. It’s a drain on your own community.”