The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With evictions set to begin next month, hundreds of millions in Washington-area rental aid remains unspent

Analysis by The Post finds that officials at federal, state and local agencies have struggled to get funds to renters, mirroring problems nationwide

Eric Baker, a cheer and dance coach in Washington, D.C., was able to dip into his savings until March. Now the unpaid rent has piled up, and he is seeking rent relief from the city. (Courtesy of Eric Baker) (Courtesy of Eric Baker)

At least $300 million in emergency funds intended to help struggling renters in the Washington area remain unspent even as a federal ban on evictions is set to expire at the end of this month, according to a Washington Post analysis.

D.C., Maryland and Virginia received funding as part of $46.6 billion in emergency rental aid approved by Congress in December and March for distribution nationwide. Treasury Department officials issued guidelines saying the aid is meant for “renters most desperately in need of assistance to avoid evictions and secure housing stability.”

But as of May 5 — more than four months after Congress approved the first round of funds — five of the 15 nearby counties, including the most populous counties in Maryland and Virginia, had not sent any federal money to renters. The District has spent $10.5 million of the first $200 million it has been allocated on tenants at risk of eviction, about 5 percent as of May 30.

The delays have exposed a deep disconnect between the pressing need of renters to pay their bills and the difficulty federal, state and local governments have had in efficiently distributing billions in aid.

Officials say that unlike other federal stimulus programs, there is no existing process for spending emergency rental aid. Instead, the stimulus legislation gives state and local governments wide latitude to design programs according to their own priorities. Some jurisdictions prioritize low-income renters, others allow landlords to receive checks directly, but all of the changes take time.

D.C. resident Eric Baker watched his income as a cheer and dance coach freeze up last spring. A second job at Top Golf also ended when the virus restrictions slammed shut businesses in the District.

“I was furloughed then until just about a month ago,” Baker said. But the 38-year-old is still dealing with the financial aftereffects. He dipped into savings to cover his $1,140 monthly rent on his one-bedroom apartment on Eastern Avenue in Northeast Washington for a year. But beginning in March, he could not get the funds together.

In early May, he applied to D.C. for his March, April and May rent. He is still waiting for the funds.

“I’m anxious to get that money so I can get caught up,” he said. “I still have this hanging over my head.”

The overall picture for renters in America has markedly improved so far this year, thanks in part to record-shattering federal stimulus programs. In January there was an estimated $52.6 billion in unpaid rent nationally, with delinquent renters behind an average of 3.8 months, according to Moody’s Analytics. By April those numbers had fallen to $31 billion in unpaid rent, and renters were 3.2 months delinquent.

America now looks poised to avoid an avalanche of evictions that forecasters feared last year, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “At the end of the day all of this money will probably end up forestalling an eviction crisis. It’s just not a very efficient way of doing it,” he said.

Stimulus checks, unemployment insurance and job growth that all arrived earlier this year have helped stabilize people’s incomes. “Overall, just a lot of cash went out to stressed households beginning in January, February and into March,” Zandi said. “And the economy improved.”

A flood of federal rental aid has been slow to reach those who most need it

But experts say the year-plus when many renters were unable to pay and landlords have been unable to collect has left a glaring need that so far the emergency rental assistance program has not filled. In the Washington area, about 5,093 households had received payments as of early to late May, according to The Post’s analysis. That amounts to $46 million, still a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars the area is expected to receive.

Apartment building owners, who lobbied for Congress to approve the funds, now say more tenants and landlords need to be made aware of it.

“This is a one-time, once-in-a-generation response from the federal government,” said Peggy Jeffers of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. “The Biden administration has gone big on this. We need to have a massive PR campaign like what we had with the covid vaccine to bring awareness to people, so they know the rent is still due, but the money is out there for them.”

Biden administration officials expect to see a sharp increase in spending once state and local governments get their programs up and running.

Creating a first-time national infrastructure for emergency rental relief “has been challenging to stay the least,” said Gene Sperling, coordinator of the White House’s American Rescue Plan. “But the more they are set up the more we can expect exponential growth as we move through the summer. We wish we could make states and local government start up faster, but renters and landlords in distress should know there is substantial relief that is growing in availability.”

Virginia, considered by Treasury officials to have one of the strongest programs in the country, has spent about 30 percent of the money it received from the first funding round (not counting Fairfax and Chesterfield counties), according to The Post analysis.

The state’s program “has kept the program continuously funded and helped many Virginians throughout the many challenges during the pandemic and will continue in the months and years ahead to assist Virginians in the recovery,” said Amanda Love, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Maryland still had not distributed any funds to its eight smaller counties as of June 1.

“We’re dealing with unprecedented amount of funding,” said Stuart Campbell, director of community programs for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “Any organization, be it a local agency, a state agency, the federal government, what have you, when you’re dealing with that amount of funding — especially when it’s taxpayer dollars — you want to make sure you get it right. Unfortunately, that can take time.”

A slow start

About 20 percent of Maryland renters and 16 percent of Virginia renters were behind on payments as of April, according to Moody’s, above the national average of 13.8 percent. In Maryland and Virginia, larger counties receive funds directly from the Treasury, and the state allocates funds to smaller counties. Once counties receive their funds, each jurisdiction devises its own strategy for distribution.

Officials in Calvert County, a jurisdiction where officials say 17 percent of residents are renters, have been receiving applications for assistance since late last year. They said Maryland officials notified them in mid-March they would be eligible for up to $1.8 million in relief through the Treasury-funded program, and although the state has not yet provided those funds as of June 1, the county has begun the program with its own money and the expectation it will be reimbursed.

The $50 billion race to save America’s renters from eviction

To deliver the funds to eligible residents, county officials repurposed existing application portals from other aid programs. To find the people in need of help, they reprogrammed the county’s robocall system it had used to alert residents of coronavirus vaccine availability. Officials also asked nonprofits, faith organizations and other community partners to spread the word and are exploring hosting “fireside chats” to inform and answer questions.

Calvert County has approved 72 applications for renters’ assistance that have aided 61 unique households using funds from other programs, according to Jennifer Moreland, the director of Calvert County Department of Community Resources. By the last week of May, the county had about two dozen applications awaiting final approval to receive the federal aid and expected to see requests increase as the payouts began.

“One of the challenges we have run into is a lot households don’t understand that you can apply more than once for assistance,” said Jacquelyn Culver, a community resources specialist for Calvert County. “So they’re waiting until they’re desperate to apply because they don’t know there are other options.”

Similar stories are playing out across the region and the country. The Washington area, one of the most expensive and economically unequal rental markets in the country, has seen a steep drop — 10 percent — in the rental rates at apartments targeted to low- and moderate-income households over the past year, according to Delta Associates.

Experts say that is probably because of how badly the pandemic has affected the earnings of service, tourism and restaurant workers. Of the 864,533 rental units in the Washington area, about 206,987 households, or 24 percent, have a likelihood of having to vacate their current rental residence due to eviction in the next two months, according to the most recent Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.

Anne Arundel County had received more than 1,200 applications and doled out $2.3 million in direct rent payments as of May, out of $17.3 million it received from Treasury. Anne Arundel County officials have dedicated case managers and in-house lawyers to help guide tenants through the application process and advise them on how best to use the funds they receive.

“One of the biggest challenges has been the sheer number of applicants and the immense need that is out there,” county spokesman Jeff Amoros wrote in an email. “Often, tenants are in crisis and may not be able to apply for assistance on their own. … Another challenge has been slowing down the eviction train in time” to prevent evictions before they take place.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous county, had not distributed the latest funds as of May 21 but opened its portal for applications on April 14. Along with $31 million in federal money, the county also received $28 million for relief from the state.

Mary C. Anderson, Montgomery County Health and Human Services’ public information officer, said that since the portal opened for funding, the county has received more than 5,000 applications. To deal with the volume, she said the county has increased its staffing for processing the applications by 50 percent and it began distributing checks to tenants in late May.

Anderson said one of the biggest challenges is reaching tenants and landlords, sometimes because of disconnected phones or changing phone numbers. “We have addressed the former in this round by adding texting capabilities, allowing tenant applicants to provide a secondary contact person, and leveraging on-site property staff to help us connect,” she said.

Fairfax County, the largest county in Virginia, opened its portal to applications the last week of May. The county quickly received more than 700 applications.

An aggravating process

Unfortunately for renters behind on their payments, setting up these programs can take months, and the clock is ticking on how much longer tenants and landlords can hang on.

Landlords, some of them at risk of bankruptcy due to tenants who have not paid in more than a year, have filed lawsuits in federal courts across the country arguing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ban on evictions illegally deprives them of their right to hold tenants who are months behind on rent accountable.

The ban for now remains in place until the end of June. But four federal judges have already ruled against the moratorium and although the ban, as well as those many state and local bans, remains in place, there is mounting opposition to the bans among some policymakers now that the federal government has barred most evictions since March of last year.

Administration officials managing the program say they had hoped to see more rapid progress, but stress that there is no national infrastructure in place to distribute such funding and that the laws establishing the programs gave states great leeway to create and operate them as they choose.

In some ways the emergency rental assistance program is the opposite of another emergency stimulus fund, the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. With PPP, the federal government quickly issued millions of checks directly to businesses after only a brief technical review by a computer program. The money went out quickly but was sometimes taken advantage of by larger companies that did not need it and criminal syndicates that escaped detection.

Rental aid by contrast relies upon states and localities to create their own programs. In addition to the 50 states there are 378 entities nationwide, including 172 county governments and 56 cities, that are involved in getting this money out the door, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Partners include nonprofit entities such as Area Congregations Together in Service, a religious consortium in Chesterfield County, Va.

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Watching as states were slow to open programs earlier this spring, the agency issued a set of guidelines on May 7 to encourage states to get money out the door.

“We are not sitting back,” said Sperling, the White House official. “We are looking for every potential step we can take under the law. The new guidance reflected our all-out effort to listen to experts, advocates and those delivering services on the ground in real time while asking what is everything we can do to respond?”

Precisely how well the program is performing remains difficult to ascertain because the Treasury Department under President Biden has not yet provided Congress or the public any information on how much money has been distributed, how many people have received it or how many evictions have been avoided. The December 2020 stimulus law provided $25 billion and requires that Treasury provide quarterly reports to Congress beginning with the first quarter of 2021. So far the agency has not provided any information.

But as the economy has improved and other federal stimulus funds have reached people in need, some experts now say the emergency rental funds are still needed, but maybe not the entire $46.5 billion.

“We saw what was a massive shock to the country and our social system, and we threw a ton of money at the problem. And some of that money was very badly needed in protecting income and supporting the recovery. And other money just hasn’t been that needed,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of policy at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a watchdog group.

Money from the first round of $25 billion in funding expires Sept. 30, at which point the federal government may repurpose it.

“There are definitely people out there who we need to make sure can afford their rents. And this is for the tenants and the landlords,” Goldwein said. “The fact that the money hasn’t gone out is either encouraging because the problem isn’t been very big our it’s discouraging because the problem is significant and the money is not doing what was intended.”

D.C. is disseminating its own funds, starting with $200 million from the December stimulus law. Of the thousands of applications the District has received, only about 500 tenants had received payouts as of May 21, according to D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). Many renters in the District probably have no idea that applying for the program, dubbed Stay D.C., could wipe clean any record of back-rent owed, advocates and property managers said at a D.C. Council committee hearing late last month.

Tenants and landlords alike described the process as glitchy, difficult and aggravating. The online application is not mobile-friendly, advocates and lawyers said, noting that makes it difficult to navigate for low-income renters who may not have regular access to a computer. Many questioned the District’s decision to require additional documentation, beyond what the federal government has asked for.

Lauren Kinard, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said the agency is spending the money on a wide array of allowable uses, including existing efforts to address homelessness. Overall the District has spent $30.5 million as of May 30 and the agency is processing more than 15,000 applications and has a number of considerations to make in issuing payments. Landlords may receive funds, for instance, but they must accept full payment for all past due rent dating to April of last year and dismiss any eviction lawsuits against the tenant. D.C. also allows undocumented tenants to apply, which can require additional outreach.

“The District is working to integrate new federal guidance while also following up with Treasury for further clarification around their expectations,” Kinard said. D.C.'s efforts include streamlining the approval process and making application forms more widely available.

Several people among the more than 100 who testified asked the D.C. government to do more outreach and, perhaps, provide cash incentives to encourage renters to apply.

“The Stay D.C. program is well intentioned, but the process is tedious and difficult to navigate and negatively impacts tenants who are non-English speaking and technologically challenged,” Timothy Taylor, a vice president for Borger Management, which oversees bout 7,000 residential units, told D.C. Council officials during the May 21 hearing.

Taylor said his company had helped nearly 260 tenants apply for relief. About 15 had been approved by May 21. None had received any payments.

This story has been updated with more recent data from the District government.