The federal government’s signature rental assistance program hasn’t yet spent a quarter of the funds Congress set aside for renters, but still has helped prevent a wave of evictions, the Biden administration said Monday.
State and local governments have handed out just $10 billion of the $46 billion Congress allocated for rental aid, but the administration says that’s been good enough to make up for the loss of a federal moratorium on evictions.
Citing data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, the Treasury Department, which oversees the emergency rental assistance program, said Monday it appeared “there has been no major national spike in evictions after the federal moratorium came down, with eviction filings remaining below historical averages.”
In many cities, housing courts are still working through the pre-pandemic backlog of eviction cases filed by landlords, which were put on hold under the moratorium. And housing lawyers are seeing a lot of close calls: tenants behind on rent who are stuck in the process of trying to get assistance while the eviction cases proceed.
Nevertheless, a feared eviction wave didn’t come to pass after the Supreme Court struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions in August.
Congress left it up to states and local governments to actually implement the rental assistance program, which many have struggled to do. Treasury has repeatedly issued new guidance and urged states to relax paperwork requirements that have been a prime obstacle to payments.
White House officials argued that Congress intended for these funds to be spent over the course of several years. But even the leading voices in Congress on housing policy, like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), says she would think twice about passing a similar program in the future, given the troubles renters have faced accessing the aid.
“We’ve got to be more involved in the legislation, not to just give it over,” Waters told HuffPost. “I’m more concerned about that.”
In September, the program served 510,000 households, up from 459,000 in August, for a cumulative total of about 2 million. If the pace continues, the Biden administration expects 3.5 million households to get help in 2021.
Officials favorably compared that figure with estimates of how many renters are on the verge of eviction; they cited multiple outside sources, like the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, that estimated around 2 million households are at immediate risk of eviction.
Gene Sperling, the Biden administration’s point person on pandemic relief programs, told reporters that “there’s no question that the 2 million payments and the path to 3.5 million payments in 2021 is making a meaningful difference in preventing the feared surge in evictions, but it is still not good enough.”
More than 6 million Americans reported that they are not at all confident they will be able to pay rent for the next month, according to the most recent census numbers from early October.
Congress first created the rental assistance program in the December legislation that also provided $600 direct payments to most Americans. The law told states to prioritize assistance to people whose incomes are less than half the local average. Many jurisdictions have asked renters to thoroughly document their incomes in order to qualify.
Treasury officials said the department’s August guidance, which encouraged states to allow people “self-attest” to their hardship instead of coughing up pay stubs and bank statements, helped speed payments in recent months.
Dwain Wall, of Palm Springs, California, described the rental aid application process as arduous. He applied in April, but his landlord didn’t get paid until this month. In the meantime, Lift to Rise, the nonprofit administering the program in Riverside County, asked for tax returns, unemployment insurance documents, “past due” utility notices and two years of bank statements.
“It was like applying for a mortgage,” Wall said.
Wall, 63, got more and more worried as time went on and his application seemingly went through multiple rounds of review. He owns a travel company that charters music-themed cruises, and hasn’t had steady income during the pandemic, which crushed the cruise industry. He’s on good terms with his landlord, who nevertheless told Wall that if he couldn’t pay the rent, he couldn’t stay in his apartment.
“I am very worried that I may fall into homelessness,” Wall said in an August email to Lift to Rise checking on the status of his application.
He received a form letter in response ― the same one he’d received every week since April. “We are currently reviewing hundreds of applications and are moving as quickly as possible to ensure that all applications are processed in a timely manner,” it said.
Wall’s application ultimately made it through. This month, his landlord received more than $7,000 for six months of rent from July through December. It’s a huge relief for Wall.
“The pressure’s off,” he said. “I’ve been able to get refocused to try and increase my income.”
Lift to Rise has helped more than 13,000 households in Riverside County, most of them low-income. The organization has advocated for more affordable housing in the area since it formed in 2018 and was distributing rental aid with other sources of federal funding before Congress created the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in December.
Lift to Rise CEO Heather Vaikona said the federal government’s shifting guidance on eligibility for rental aid has been a headache as her organization tries to avoid making mistakes that could result in repercussions.
“The guidance hasn’t been clear. It hasn’t been clear from the beginning. It’s changed constantly,” Vaikona said. “You’re dealing with localities whose future livelihood depends on their good reputation.”