The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Five-alarm fire’: Slow trickle of rental aid heightens concern about eviction crisis

Of the billions of dollars allotted by Congress for emergency relief, only $1.5 billion had been spent by the end of May, according to Treasury Department data

Protesters surround the Superior Court in Los Angeles in August, calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to implement an eviction moratorium amid the pandemic. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The White House, along with state and local governments, is under growing pressure to significantly ramp up the amount of emergency rental relief reaching tenants and landlords, as some economists and housing advocates say the Biden administration’s attention to the eviction crisis is coming too late.

Weeks before an eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires on July 31, much of the federal aid meant to help tenants and landlords has not reached them. Many are not even aware that the assistance is available, or they continue to struggle with onerous and complicated application rules. Some programs run by state and local governments took months to get up and running.

All told, Congress has appropriated roughly $46 billion for emergency rental aid. Of the $25 billion appropriated in December, only $1.5 billion had been spent on rent, utilities and arrears between January and the end of May, according to figures released Friday by the Treasury Department. Treasury does not yet have data on how much of the other $21 billion has been spent, according to an agency official.

Many parts of the economy show signs of improvement from the wild swings in 2020. But housing has proved especially complicated. Home prices are soaring, boxing out many potential buyers. Meanwhile, tenants behind on rent, and landlords strapped for income, are on unstable ground. The CDC’s eviction moratorium has been intended to keep people in their homes, but it does not erase bills once they come due. The moratorium will not be extended past July 31.

The Treasury data reflects an uneven picture across the country. In Rhode Island, for example, the data shows that no money was spent on rent, utilities and arrears until May, when $100,000 was paid out and six households were assisted. But local officials say that is because it took time to correct flaws in the systems, which delayed payments and led to a backlog in applications.

Meanwhile, programs in Virginia and Texas picked up momentum early. Between January and May, those states paid out $155.5 million and $139.8 million, respectively, in rent, utilities and arrears, according to the Treasury data.

The data does show a steady increase in the number of people receiving help: Almost 160,000 households were assisted in May, up from about 97,400 in April. But experts say those numbers pale in comparison to the number of people who risk losing their homes when the CDC eviction moratorium expires after July 31. According to the Census Household Pulse Survey from June, 1.2 million households reported being very likely to face eviction in the next two months.

“With the federal eviction moratorium set to expire in four weeks, these data are a five-alarm fire,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Setting up rental assistance programs from scratch is a major and time-consuming undertaking, but by now, that’s no excuse for the abysmally slow pace of spending in some communities.”

FAQ: The CDC’s final eviction moratorium expires July 31. Here’s what Biden is doing to avert a crisis.

Senior White House officials, too, are frustrated with the slow rollout of the funding. With increasing concern about what happens after July 31, the Biden administration is imploring state and local governments, courts, legal aid organizations, community groups and others to do all they can to raise awareness about rental relief and keep people in their homes.

“The law gives the states and local governments the responsibility to get funds out without giving us hardly any sticks and carrots,” said Gene Sperling, who is overseeing the rollout of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. “So we are just doing everything imaginable in our power — from new guidance to new flexibilities to threats of reallocation — to push, guide, coax, and convene because we are in a race with time and the stakes are so high.”

If this recent push from the top ranks of government fails to prevent a nationwide eviction crisis, the consequences could be enormous. Many housing experts fear a wave of homelessness when the moratorium lifts, imperiling some of the most vulnerable households and working against many of the White House’s own housing priorities.

The Biden administration recently announced new initiatives to quicken the disbursal of rental relief and streamline application processes. The White House also convened a meeting of dozens of cities last week to share plans for staving off an eviction crisis. Emphasis was put on diversion programs that can stop evictions early, keep cases out of court and allow more time for rental assistance to move through the system.

At this point, senior White House officials say that they are left with few other tools of their own and that the responsibility now rests with state and local governments. Compounding the challenge, experts say, is that the country lacked the infrastructure to quickly pump billions of dollars in emergency rental relief into households’ pockets.

As home prices soar in unlikely places, the most vulnerable residents pay the price

“While one can’t judge success by the percentage of $45 billion spent in the first few months — it is fair to expect that states and local governments could serve hundreds and hundreds of thousands more tenants and landlords each month this summer as quickly as possible,” Sperling said.

Still, all over the country, people have struggled with onerous and complicated application rules — if they know how to access the funding at all.

According to an analysis from the Urban Institute, more than half of renters, and 40 percent of landlords, are still unaware of federal assistance. Moreover, less than 6 percent of landlords, and 11 percent of tenants, indicated that they applied for federal emergency rental assistance.

Yentel said her organization, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, has been in close contact with the administration on ways to improve the process. She said the White House and Treasury have been “very responsive” and that many of her group’s recommendations have been taken up. Some states that took the time to correct problems with their programs are now on an encouraging track, Yentel said.

But she said there’s still more the federal government can do. For example, when it comes to raising awareness, Yentel said, information about rental relief could be passed out at vaccination sites. Low-income people could be reached through food pantries or shelters or through programs that administer Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Housing crisis poses crucial test for Biden administration’s economic plans

“The federal government, all along, could have, and should have, done more to recognize the importance of getting this money out,” she said. “I do think the urgency on that came a little late.”

The White House, for its part, said it spent April working closely with advocates and those delivering housing services on the ground. It then announced a series of changes on May 7, which were praised by housing experts across the country.

The latest Treasury data reflects lags and choppiness across the country. Multiple states and local grantees, including some with large pots of emergency rental relief, did not open their programs until May or early June. More than 80 state and local governments did not spend any money on household assistance by the end of May, according to the Treasury Department.

There are some brighter spots. At the local level, Texas’s Harris County and the city of Houston are running their programs in close collaboration and have emerged as exemplars, spending a combined $75.6 million as of May 31. In Illinois, Cook County has spent $21.6 million, more than half of which was spent in May alone.

The Treasury data only runs through May 31. And it will be telling to see how quickly states can scale up their payments this summer. In Rhode Island, local officials said the state has paid out $3.1 million in emergency rental assistance, with $2.6 million more about to be disbursed. The state has a total allotment of $200 million. Roughly 3,700 applications are backlogged, and officials expect that to clear by mid-July.

A main goal of the White House’s recent eviction-prevention meeting was to get representatives from dozens of cities in the same room. That included mayors’ offices and court officials, local bar associations and landlord groups, tenant advocates and nonprofit organizations. In breakout sessions, the idea was for everyone to divvy up their responsibilities and launch an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Hundreds of millions in Washington-area rental aid remains unspent

Emily Benfer, a housing expert at Wake Forest University, was part of the White House meeting and said she left feeling hopeful. Benfer said she participated in a breakout session focused on one of the cities with a high risk of evictions. The city committed to hosting an emergency meeting with the mayor’s office and other local groups, which didn’t exist before the White House gathering, Benfer said.

“What happens in the next three weeks could either make an enormous difference in housing stability rates and public health, or it could secure peoples’ downward trajectory and devastation, so keeping up this momentum will be important,” she said.

Others are less optimistic.

Tara Raghuveer, founding director of KC Tenants, said it was the first time so many local officials from Kansas City, Mo., had met all at the same time. But Raghuveer said there were no concrete commitments made, beyond a follow-up meeting that’s still in the process of being scheduled.

Raghuveer said she’s long been urging for eviction prevention programs in her area. Meanwhile, she said she has watched landlords find loopholes that allow them to keep evicting people, even while the moratorium remains in place.

“I’m not skeptical for skepticism’s sake,” Raghuveer said. “I’m skeptical because we’ve been making those arguments for the better part of almost a year and a half, and our local officials have not responded.”