With evictions expected to mount, access to rental aid remains uneven

Last week the Supreme Court ended a national moratorium on evictions, removing a safeguard for the millions of Americans behind on their rent. The anticipated wave of evictions has brought increased urgency to a federal emergency rental assistance program. But the program’s sluggish start has left billions in rental aid untouched, and a highly decentralized approach means the ease with which a person can access relief can come down to where they live.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program appropriated $46.5 billion for people affected by the pandemic and struggling to make rent payments. But by the end of July, less than a fifth of the first tranche of $25 billion, approved by Congress and President Donald Trump in December, had been given to renters. Less than 11 percent of the total funding had been distributed.

Unlike other federal pandemic relief funds, the aid is delivered to state and local governments for them to allocate, rather than directly from the federal government.

State and local governments set up their own programs or turned to community partners, typically local housing nonprofits, to field applications, evaluate need and distribute funds. The decentralized approach created a patchwork of application processes across the country.

This has created barriers in some communities where, for instance, applications must be filed collectively by landlord and tenant, the office only accepts calls on the first business day of the month or an in-person meeting is required.

While some places now have streamlined and efficient systems, the rollout was plagued by technical glitches, overwhelmed application systems, narrow application windows and other organizational challenges that stymied the distribution of relief to people in need.

For example, Milwaukee County, Wis., works with two community partners to distribute aid. Both organizations use an online application system with only a few steps. The process has an application turnaround of two to three weeks. As of July 31, Treasury Department data shows Milwaukee County has distributed 95 percent of its allocated emergency rental assistance funding.

Greene County, Mo., on the other hand, chose to forgo an online application system to better reach residents with limited Internet access, but this makes the process for getting rental aid more complicated. The county partners with six organizations, all of which follow different processes for aid approval. Most require multiple phone calls, and some take calls only a few days a month. All of the organizations prescreen applicants and require an in-person meeting. An Aug. 30 report from the county says it’s approved 71 percent of the initial program’s funding, but the partnering organizations have distributed only 48 percent of the initial funding.

Applications for aid can be completed by either a renter or a landlord. Here’s what it takes for a renter to get approved for emergency rental assistance in these two counties.

Ashlyn Still is a graphics reporter on the elections team.
Alyssa Fowers is a graphics reporter for The Washington Post.