But housing experts caution there is a long way to go. Only about $3 billion was spent on rent, utilities and arrears through June — just a fraction of the $46 billion, in total, Congress appropriated for emergency rental aid. The vast majority of the money has not been spent while states and cities struggle to prop up programs that get money out the door.
The final eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will expire July 31, intensifying pressure on the Biden administration, along with state and local governments, to raise awareness about the funding and make it simpler to apply. On Wednesday, the White House held its second eviction-prevention meeting to shore up an all-hands-on-deck effort to slow-track eviction cases and keep people in their homes.
Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said efforts to speed up rental assistance “are clearly having a positive effect.” But Yentel emphasized the assistance has not come close to reaching all of the families at risk of eviction. About 1.2 million households reported being very likely to face eviction in the next two months, according to the Census Household Pulse Survey from June.
“There remain dozens of states and cities that have distributed little to no assistance to renters in need,” Yentel said. “Some communities are spending their money quickly and well, making those that haven’t all the more glaring and unacceptable.”
Indeed, Treasury data released Wednesday shows spotty progress. Some states saw encouraging jumps — the state of Illinois went from reporting zero assistance in the first five months of the year to $95.4 million in June, in large part because state officials took so long to build the program. California’s spending more than doubled in June to $74.4 million, up from $30.2 million in May.
Other places continued to lag behind or didn’t see major increases in spending, according to the Treasury data. Idaho paid out $1 million in rental assistance in May, and $1.1 million in June. Nevada paid out $2.6 million in May, then paid out less — $700,000 — in June.
Housing experts gave a mix of explanations for why some places are gaining momentum, while others are not. Many states and cities realized there were serious issues with their programs earlier this year. It was going to take time and money to get things right.
The trade offs were serious: The longer it took for new, retooled programs to launch, the longer vulnerable households would have to wait for help. Some places passed on fixes altogether, experts said, sticking to flawed, backlogged programs.
A look at North Carolina shows why some investments paid off. In October 2020, North Carolina used $150 million from the Cares Act to prop up an initial rental assistance program. Within three weeks, the system was overwhelmed with more than 40,000 applications. It could take weeks or months for payments to go out.
“A couple of things became glaringly obvious when we were running this for the first time,” said Laura Hogshead, chief operating officer of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. “We set it up as a sprint, not realizing this was going to be a marathon.”
Hogshead said the state was not equipped to quickly issue tens of thousands of individual checks, further delaying payments. Officials also spent time painstakingly collecting names and addresses for people who had fallen behind on their utility bills — only to be told by the utility companies that none of that information mattered. The companies needed peoples’ account numbers.
The state ultimately joined forces with an outside check vendor that could efficiently process smaller payments, as one example.
North Carolina’s new program did not launch until May 17. But officials say the fixes were essential: As of Wednesday, $142 million dollars in rental relief had been approved, and $66 million had been fully paid out.
“There were a lot of intricate details to put in place, but setting up this program early allowed us to work through those bumps in the road, and now we have a process … this that is working extraordinarily well and efficiently,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) told The Washington Post.
Other hurdles hobbled rental relief programs all over the country.
For example, on the final day of the Trump administration, the Treasury Department sent out guidance for how state and cities could use rental relief funds. But many housing agencies found those rules confusing, and they were not sure if they should use the instructions as a road map because Biden was about to take office.
Jennifer Schwartz, director of Tax and Housing Advocacy at the National Council of State Housing Agencies, added that some tenants and landlords do not have access to computers or Internet. Schwartz said it took time for places to staff up call centers that could help people with paper applications.
Adding another wrinkle, some local governments have their own pots of money for emergency rental aid. Officials at the state level often had to make sure people were not getting benefits twice.
“It was like steering the Titanic, and building the Titanic, at the same time,” Schwartz said.
The Biden administration has revised guidance multiple times this year. Housing advocates have largely praised the administration’s efforts to streamline application processes and learn from what is happening closer to the ground. At the same time, there has been criticism that the urgency could have come sooner.
The White House has been clear it cannot solve this problem alone. On Wednesday, it once again convened representatives from mayors’ offices, legal aid groups, nonprofits, landlord organizations and tenant advocates. The goal was to bring everyone together to keep evictions out of court, raise awareness about rental relief and expand other eviction-diversion programs.
White House officials have said there is also an accountability goal: The hope was that a second meeting would motivate cities to follow through on their commitments. After the initial gathering on June 30, some participants gave The Washington Post mixed reviews on whether concrete plans were made.
“It’s on all of us. None of us have done everything we can. All of us have to go the extra mile,” Gene Sperling, who is overseeing the rollout of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Step up.”
Administration officials often point to Texas’s Harris County, which encompasses much of the city of Houston, as an exemplar when it comes to emergency rental relief. Yet, even there, local officials say there was a rocky start.
Last year, Harris County and the city of Houston ran separate rental relief programs using Cares Act funding. But many local residents were confused about which program they should apply to.
The solution: Merge the two programs. As of Wednesday, the joint program had pledged or paid $144 million to more than 38,000 households. Even with so much money paid out, local officials say the need is still high: There’s a steady stream of 2,500 to 3,000 applications per week.
“Everything we’ve done has come with lessons learned,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.
A previous version of this story reported an incorrect amount of rental relief paid out by the state of Idaho in June.