Millions of people fear they are likely to be evicted from their homes within the next two months as a growing housing crisis threatens to explode during the fourth wave of the COVID pandemic. Only a fraction of the emergency rental relief approved by Congress has been distributed. Advocates say relief programs are marred by red tape and bureaucratic delays, raising fears that the aid will not reach struggling renters before an already flimsy federal eviction moratorium expires in October.
Housing advocates are now calling on state and local governments to streamline the application process for rental relief and provide cash assistance directly to tenants who are behind on rent and utility bills, especially in COVID hot spots across the Gulf South and other regions where infection rates are skyrocketing. They are also calling for transformative, long-term solutions, including the right to legal counsel for tenants in eviction disputes and bold investments in public and community-owned housing.
Keeping families stable in their homes — and out of shelters and the crowded homes of family and friends — is crucial for saving lives and ending the pandemic, advocates say, but the national effort to provide rental aid is failing. Tenants are facing multiple barriers to relief depending on where they live, including onerous documentation requirements and landlords who do not know about or refuse to participate in the emergency relief programs.
In response to the pandemic, Congress allocated $46.5 billion in “direct” financial assistance to cover rent, back rent, utilities and other housing costs for renters and landlords over the next five years. The Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Relief Program is currently distributing the first $25 billion chunk to cities and states, but only about $4.26 billion, or about 17 percent, has been approved for households so far, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). Even less has actually been spent on rent and utilities.
Rebecca Kueber, a single mother who lost her job at a restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while her three children living at home were attending school remotely, was in tears as she described her situation during a press conference on Thursday. Kueber, who is fluent in Spanish, spoke to reporters through a translator.
“I haven’t been able to turn in my application for rent help [in] New Mexico because my landlord has not given me a letter that’s been updated showing the months of rent that I owe,” Kueber said, adding that the application was difficult to understand. “And the documents that are needed, I’ve struggled to be able to obtain them because the offices are closed and don’t necessarily take calls.”
At the pace that federal rental relief money is currently moving, advocates say, many tenants will not receive the help they need by the time the federal eviction moratorium expires again on October 3. The Biden administration, which extended the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium earlier this month after coming under pressure from activists and progressive lawmakers, has stated that the moratorium is aimed at buying renters and policymakers a little more time, but could be struck down in court.
Meanwhile, the moratorium has not completely prevented evictions in communities across the country. The latest version applies to areas with “substantial” or “high” levels of new COVID infections, which currently includes just about everywhere, but that could change as more people get vaccinated. Legal challenges have blocked enforcement of the moratorium in several states, including Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio.
Tenants are expected to fill out paperwork and provide a notice to their landlord in order to be protected by the moratorium, but landlords often file for evictions in court anyway, knowing that tenants rarely show up to court with legal representation. Filing for an eviction against a tenant covered by the moratorium is supposed to be illegal, but landlords across the country have challenged the moratorium’s enforcement language in court.
“I am not aware of any instances across the country where law enforcement is enforcing those provisions,” Hill said. “But law enforcement quickly comes out when landlords want to throw a tenant’s things on the street.”
Continued evictions under the moratorium have renewed calls to guarantee tenants the right to an attorney in court proceedings, where landlords often have the upper hand. John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said the effectiveness pandemic relief efforts including the rental assistance and the eviction moratorium are “hampered” because most tenants do not have defense attorneys. Not only can attorneys help tenants navigate an “increasingly complex process,” Pollock said, they also hold landlords accountable to the moratorium and other federal requirements.
“Given that only about 3 percent of tenants nationally have access to counsel, the sizeable gap that needs to be closed requires the involvement of all levels of government,” Pollock said in an email.
In Louisiana, where a surge in COVID infections driven by the Delta variant and low vaccination rates is overwhelming hospitals, only about 9 percent of the state’s nearly $249 million in first-round federal emergency rental assistance has been approved for roughly 4,000 applicants, according to state and federal data. The most recent Census Pulse Household Survey found that more than 91,600 Louisiana residents say they are “somewhat” or “very” likely to lose their home in the next two months due to an eviction.
“We don’t currently have the systems in place to make sure that people can stay housed right now,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, in an interview.
Nationally, an estimated 15 million people live in more than 6 million households that are an average of $3,300 behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas. Despite the eviction moratorium, an estimated 3.5 million adults say it’s “somewhat” or “very” likely that they will be evicted and leave their homes within the next two months.
Pam Phan, a senior field organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, a coalition of tenant unions and housing justice groups, said the number of many people are currently facing housing insecurity is probably higher than the Census estimates.
“For poor working-class people across the country, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color, we’ve been staring down an eviction crisis long before COVID-19 made it painfully clear there are systemic failures to working people in the U.S.,” Phan said during the press conference on Thursday.
Hill, an attorney who represents tenants in court, said she has already fought legal battles to prevent low-income renters from being evicted in the suburbs of New Orleans. In the Crescent City, judges are once again scheduling eviction hearings, and an untold number of informal or “invisible” evictions have already occurred during the pandemic without ever going to court. New Orleans was already facing a housing and eviction crisis before the pandemic, which seriously weakened the tourism industry and left even larger numbers of tenants without work and months behind on rent.
However, it may be somewhat easier for tenants in New Orleans to access rental relief than those living in other parts of Louisiana. Like other urban parishes, Orleans Parish is distributing federal rental aid through its own program, while residents in rural areas must apply through the state program. In New Orleans, renters can “self-attest” to certain eligibility requirements without further documentation. That means a renter can simply declare that they have faced hardship due the pandemic without asking for a letter from a former employer or digging up evidence (like an old pay stub) to prove they used to work.
Allowing renters to self-attest their eligibility for aid reduces paperwork and saves time, especially for people who don’t own a computer or fax machine, according to Hill. Louisiana’s statewide program does not allow so-called “self-attestation” for proving that a renter meets the requirements for federal aid, and Hill said the additional red tape can cause problems and delays that renters on the edge of eviction cannot afford.
Despite federal guidance urging cities and states to streamline access to aid, nearly 44 percent of rental relief programs do not allow for any form of self-attestation to prove eligibility. Most programs pay relief money to landlords, not tenants, and only 27 percent will provide tenants with aid if their landlord is unresponsive or refuses to sign paperwork and participate, according to the NLIHC.
“It’s very clear that many rental assistance application processes across the country reflect the disdain and the distaste that policymakers have for people who are poor, people who are renters, and people of color,” Hill said. “We should all be wondering why we are requiring renters to jump through hoops in order to get rental assistance, but we don’t require any of the same processes for homeowners to access the mortgage interest [tax] deduction, which is assistance in the form of a taxpayer-funded subsidy.”
Ann Oliva helped run safety net programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a decade, and she points to multiple reasons why states and cities makes the application for federal benefits detailed and complicated. While some state and local programs may be legitimately worried about paying back program money lost to fraud and abuse, others have onerous requirements that reflect the kind of distrust of and disdain for people on the margins described by Hill.
“In many circumstances, the calculation about risk leans toward being more cautious and getting more documentation than less so,” Oliva said in an interview. “That results in some of these frankly ridiculous application processes.… If you are applying for rental assistance because you are behind on rent, why do they need to know the make and model of your car?”
Oliva, who is now the vice president for housing policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank focused on the social safety net, said federal agencies typically create broad parameters for cities and states distributing aid. This is certainly the case with emergency rental assistance; Oliva said the Treasury Department has allowed for plenty of flexibility to states and cities while providing guidance urging them to get the money out as efficiently as possible by allowing self-attestation, for example.
However, austerity-minded state officials require mounds of documentation, such as letters from landlords and former employers, imposing surveillance on poor and marginalized people who request assistance. If an applicant does not have a good relationship with their landlords and former employers, well, tough luck. This problem is reflected in the longstanding federal housing voucher program often called “Section 8.” Families wait years to enter the program, and only 25 percent of eligible families currently receive any rental assistance. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the only federal cash assistance program, is shaped by a legacy of racism against Black mothers going back decades.
“The way that you address this in the long run is to provide universal rental assistance available to people who are below a certain income level through an expansion of the housing choice voucher program to actually meet the needs of everybody who is eligible,” Oliva said.
Advocates are now calling on state and local programs to take advantage of the flexibility allowed by the Biden administration and work with community organizations to quickly hand out rental relief benefits to tenants in cash, rather than requiring stacks of documents and then providing the relief to landlords. Back in Santa Fe, a social justice collective called Chainbreaker teamed up with a progressive mayor to do just that and quickly distributed about $6 million in rental relief to families at risk of eviction.
The $6 million in direct cash assistance distributed in Santa Fe accounts for more than 22 percent of the relief awarded across the entire state of New Mexico, and the aid went further than paying rent, allowing tenants to make sure their utility bills are paid as well.
Nationally, advocates say this could prevent large, corporate landlords, which enjoy record profits despite the pandemic and spent millions of dollars fighting the eviction moratorium, from using their vast resources to suck up badly needed relief for low-income renters.
Cathy Garcia, a community organizer with Chainbreaker, said the cash assistance campaign in Santa Fe helped do away with unnecessary paperwork and helped local officials get the money out quickly. Advocates say allowing struggling renters like Kueber low-barrier access to cash should serve as a model for the rest of the country.
Garcia said renters have the responsibility to take care of their families, and the government should trust their financial decisions. Onerous application requirements only cause frustration and anxiety.
“It makes a difficult situation worse,” Garcia said.