Congress set aside $46 billion to cover rent for people struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic, but states and cities have so far distributed only a fraction of the funds.
Some local governments lack the staff and the know-how to distribute the aid, and many have saddled renters with tough paperwork requirements.
But another problem is that some landlords refuse to accept the money.
In Baltimore, one property management firm told local TV station WBAL earlier this week that it wouldn’t take the payment because the wording in the city’s rental assistance contract “contained ambiguities and conflict,” an apparent reference to the city’s requirement that participating landlords hold off on evictions for 90 days.
“If you’re getting paid in full and all the balances will be zero, I’m not understanding,” the property manager’s struggling tenant told WBAL.
Another tenant in Broward County, Florida, voiced a similar complaint to TV station WSVN last month after she said her landlord wouldn’t accept federal rental assistance: “If the funds are there and the government are giving funds to help people, why are you denying me?”
For the most part, landlords like rental assistance. Lobbying groups for the rental housing industry have supported the federal rental aid programs, viewing them as a much more favorable alternative to the eviction moratoriums that were in place for much of the year. Rental housing trade associations and renter advocacy groups alike have lobbied for a simplified application process for landlords to get paid.
But not all landlords want to participate. Nearly half of rental aid program administrators struggled with landlord responsiveness, according to an April survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, with one administrator sharing that “many landlords are not looking to keep unreliable tenants.”
Just making the rental aid program less bureaucratic might help.
“Sometimes, landlords just need help in understanding the advantages of rental assistance and how to access it,” Rachel Garland, managing attorney for housing at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, told HuffPost in an email.
Philadelphia is one area that has had success with distributing rental aid, thanks in part to a local court order requiring landlords to apply before filing for eviction, plus an eviction diversion program that links renters to housing counselors who set up mediation sessions with landlords.
Some landlords dislike the document requirements, which can involve handing over sensitive information in tax forms ― a particularly dicey proposition for landlords with unlicensed units. Other landlords might be looking for new tenants, and hot rental markets may create a strong incentive for evictions, as NLIHC director Diane Yentel has suggested.
“Our real estate market has been red hot throughout the pandemic because we have, in addition to our already pretty strong demand, a lot of people moving from New York and Philadelphia to New Jersey,” Adam Gordon, executive director at Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey, told HuffPost.
“We’ve seen a lot of landlords who want to evict long-standing tenants, and especially long-standing tenants of color, to slap a new coat of paint on the deck to try to attract newcomers,” Gordon added.
(New Jersey still has its own eviction moratorium through the end of the year.)
Nationally, the federal rental assistance program had paid out only $5.1 billion of the $46 billion allotted as of the end of July, with several dozen localities having failed to disburse a dime in more than eight months. The Treasury Department has been pleading with local governments to drop their paperwork requirements and let renters “self-attest” to their hardship and risk of homelessness.
One way around obstinate landlords would be for governments to pay renters directly — which they can already do, but most don’t. Only 28% of local rental programs advertised direct payments to renters, according to the NLIHC.
Earlier this week, the House Committee on Financial Services approved legislation that would make it easier for renters to receive payments directly. The bill would also temporarily prohibit evictions by participating landlords ― a provision loathed by the rental industry ― and require more public outreach about the program. It’s not clear whether Democrats plan to include the measure in an upcoming budget bill they’re hoping to send to President Joe Biden’s desk this fall.
Jurisdictions that fail to distribute their rental aid allotment by the end of the month stand to lose the funds, which the Treasury Department will redistribute to other local governments that will actually use them.
HuffPost readers: Are you a landlord or renter who has applied for rental assistance but not received it? Tell us about it ― email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed.
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting to this story.