Race Is On to Get Rental Assistance Out to Avert Evictions

BOSTON (AP) -

States rush to distribute nearly $47 billion allocated by Congress for emergency rental assistance before a federal eviction moratorium ends July 31, putting millions at risk of losing their homes.

The historic amount — more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual budget — was allocated in December and March.

Housing advocates blame the slow rollout partly on the Treasury Department under President Donald Trump that they say was slow to explain how the money could be spent. The criteria, while clearer under the Biden administration, was still criticized for a burdensome process that seemed more focused on preventing fraud than helping tenants.

Advocates also said states made things worse — some waited months to set up programs and others created bureaucratic hurdles.

As a result, little money has gone out. According to data released Friday from the Treasury Department, only $1.5 billion was provided to about 350,000 households by May 31. That’s less than 4% of the money allotted.

Some 3.4 million people could face eviction in the next two months, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey — a number some advocates say could be twice that.

Many tenants will be forced out into a red-hot housing market where prices are rising and vacancy rates plummeting. They also will be stuck with eviction and delinquent back-rent records that make it almost impossible to find new housing, leaving many to turn to homeless shelters or find dwellings in low-income neighborhoods without good schools and access to transportation and jobs.

Among those at risk is Freddie Davis, a 51-year-old Miami truck driver who lost his job during the pandemic and saw his rent increase from $875 to $1,400-a-month. He is $7,000 behind on rent and fears his monthly $1,038 disability check after he lost a leg to diabetes won’t be enough to find another place. He applied for rental assistance, but his landlord refused to take it.

” I don’t have no other place to go,” said Davis, who has worked since he was 15 and never before been evicted. “In Miami, rent is sky high. I am going to sleep in my truck and put all my stuff in storage.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that of the 51 programs it has tracked so far, just 14% of funds allocated in December had been distributed. Most states aren’t yet distributing the March money.

The Associated Press found states as varied as North Dakota and California facing difficulty getting assistance out. Georgia distributed only $11 million of $552 million, North Dakota provided $3.4 million of $200 million, North Carolina awarded $73 million out of $546 million and California $73 million of $1.4 billion. New York launched a $2 billion program last month but expects it will be four to six weeks before it distributes anything.

The hurdles vary, according to a Housing Coalition survey in April, including lack of capacity to administer the program, technical difficulties setting it up and lack of cooperation from tenants and their landlords.

Some landlords refused to participate. Tenants sometimes didn’t complete applications — often because they were required to provide proof of lost jobs or other financial hardship during the pandemic.

Some of the same problems emerged last year when states set aside nearly $2.6 billion from the CARES Act for rental assistance.

A common refrain was that federal requirements were too onerous and the guidelines too stringent.

Erica Boggess, executive director of the West Virginia Housing Fund, which runs the state’s rental assistance program, called it “time consuming” in explaining why it had distributed only $8.7 million of $200 million from the first round of funding.

“It’s labor intensive,” Boggess said of requirements that include verifying a COVID-19 hardship and documenting an applicant’s income before going to a landlord for acceptance of the funds.

“It’s frustrating for the tenant and probably landlords as well,” she said. “We have to go through the process. It’s just not something that can happen overnight.”

California has made changes to its lengthy application, which could take three hours to complete. It reduced the number of required documents from as many as nine to as few as one; now it takes 30 minutes to fill out. It also expanded the languages on the program website from two to six.

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for California’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, said the state initially followed Treasury rules aimed at preventing duplication of benefits and ensuring applicants were entitled to what they got. “Now we simply rely on a tenant’s attestation that they had a COVID-19 financial hardship,” he said.

Since March, the Treasury Department has required money to go directly to tenants, among other streamlining moves, and urged landlords be barred from evicting tenants for up to 90 days after the period covered by assistance.

“We need relief distributed now, before the eviction moratorium expires at the end of July,” Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said this week. “Renters at risk of eviction are desperate for that relief, and landlords need to cover their bills.”