The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than half a billion dollars went to keeping D.C.-area renters in their homes ahead of federal deadline

Groups march to the condo building of D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio's to demand that the Bowser administration stop standing in the way of the $352 million that Congress has allocated to help tenants in the District, on April 10. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

More than $649 million in emergency funds intended to help struggling renters in the Washington area pay overdue bills and avoid eviction was distributed ahead of a Sept. 30th use-it-or-lose-it federal deadline, a Washington Post analysis found. That amount accounts for nearly 60 percent of the more than $1.1 billion that the federal government allocated to the District, Maryland and Virginia and a handful of the states’ largest counties.

State and local governments initially were required to allocate at least 65 percent of the Emergency Rental Assistance program funds by the end of the last fiscal year or risk having to return some of the money. The U.S. Treasury then planned to collect and redistribute unspent funds to jurisdictions that have demonstrated a significant need.

But under new federal guidance released Monday, state and local governments that failed to meet the deadline will instead be asked to submit an improvement plan to the Treasury, outlining the steps they intend to take to move more money into the pockets of struggling renters and landlords.

The worst-performing municipalities — those that have not spent at least 30 percent of the rental assistance money — may then be asked to return it to the federal government for redistribution.

In the D.C. area, only the state of Maryland missed the 65 percent benchmark by the end of September.

According to estimates provided by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Maryland is expected to report to the Treasury next week that it has spent $72 million, or roughly 28 percent of its $258 million grant.

Danielle Meister, a senior policy officer who focuses on homelessness prevention, helped oversee Maryland’s rollout of the emergency rental assistance program funds. Meister said officials remain confident that the state will not have its funding repossessed, noting Maryland is on track to spend in excess of 30 percent by the end of October.

“The goal post has been shifting,” she said. “We don’t know exactly how it will play out in the end, but it does not appear that when we go to submit our numbers that we will be at risk of potential recapture.”

Virginia did not provide numbers through Sept. 30, but as of one week prior, the state had spent more than 67 percent of its $524.6 million award, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. More than 62,000 rental payments had been made to Virginia residents, officials said, to the tune of about $332.6 million — helping more than 48,600 households remain in their homes.

The District leads the country in per capita spending, federal data shows, and blew past the 65 percent threshold in August. By the last week of September, D.C. had spent about 73 percent of its $200 million share, said Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio.

Of the five county governments in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs that received rent relief funds directly from the Treasury Department, only Fairfax County did not hit its 65 percent distribution goal.

Fairfax County has obligated more than 51 percent of the nearly $34.5 million it received for renters as of Sept. 30 — about $17.9 million — and has aided more than 2,000 households, Jeffery McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said.

In Maryland, Meister said eight counties — where, an estimated 82 percent of renters live — received direct aid from the Treasury Department plus an additional infusion of state funds.

State funds were needed because the initial Treasury distribution was a “total mismatch of resources” when compared with where the majority of renters in the state live, Meister said.

“We gave them extra money so they could meet their total need,” she said. “The way Maryland is doing things is a different model than other states; we’re working much more collaboratively with our local jurisdictions.”

But county governments have largely prioritized spending the federal money ahead of the state funds, which has contributed to Maryland’s lagging distribution numbers, Meister said.

Millions remain unspent as D.C. area renters anxiously await aid from emergency rental assistance programs

Anne Arundel County received $17. 3 million from the federal government and an additional $5.5 million from the state. It has spent more than $11 million of its direct-from-Treasury allocation, around 65 percent of the funds. The county funneled its state allocation to the United Way, which has helped set up a landlord-focused relief program, according to county spokesman Jeff Amoros.

Howard County got $9.7 million from the federal government and an additional $4.5 million from the state. It has spent nearly $7 million of its direct-from-Treasury allocation, about 72 percent of the funds. Howard County has also contracted with the United Way to help direct funding to landlords to pay off accounts for delinquent tenants in an effort to avoid evictions. All of the nearly $4.5 million from the state went toward that program, according to the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development.

Montgomery County received $31.5 million from the federal government and an additional $28.1 million from the state. It has spent roughly $21.2 million of its direct-from-Treasury allocation, about 68 percent of the funds. The county has used about $13.8 million of its state allocation, aiding nearly 2,700 households, said Amanda Harris, Montgomery County’s chief of services to end and prevent homelessness at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is a massive program. Our typical budget for eviction prevention was around $4 million. We now have over $100 million to manage,” Harris said. “There has been a lot of noise about, ‘why aren’t you moving faster?’ But I would like to see [how] another program of this scale and size stood up in just two months. And that’s what we did.”

Prince George’s County got $27.2 million from the federal government and an additional $27 million from the state. It has spent about $21.7 million of its direct-from-Treasury allocation, nearly 80 percent of the funds. The county has used about $8.7 million of its state allocation, assisting more than 4,100 households.

Although the emergency rental-assistance program is administered by the Treasury Department, the federal government has given states and local agencies latitude to distribute the aid according to their own priorities. This has resulted in a patchwork system in which approaches — and success rates — vary by community.

Some jurisdictions have prioritized low-income renters or allowed tenants to apply without the cooperation of their landlords. Other jurisdictions are requiring that landlords exhaust all relief options before a court case can proceed. Montgomery County has tied its program to eviction proceedings — following up with each tenant under threat of eviction.

“Eviction filings are down from pre-pandemic levels; we have not seen this big surge in evictions that everyone feared and I do think that is partly to do with this emergency assistance,” Meister said of Maryland. “We’ve tried to make sure our local partners are in touch with courthouses and using this money for eviction diversion.”

The early months of the emergency rent relief program in some areas were marred by glitchy application systems and processing delays that left needy families hanging for months. Advocates have criticized the program as complex and drawn-out. Slow-to-arrive payments meant some renters fell further behind on rent or faced eviction as they waited for their checks.

In some states, the national eviction moratorium was dead long before the Supreme Court struck it down

Even though the tsunami of eviction filings didn’t quite materialize, once the federal eviction moratorium ended in late August, demand for rental relief continued to grow.

“It’s so important to remember that we had an affordable housing crisis prior to the pandemic. Half of all renters [in Montgomery County] are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent,” Harris said. “Sometimes we’ll see [rental assistance] applications come in with arrears are just too great and they’re not going to be able to afford where they live anymore, so we have tried to use the emergency rental assistance funds to help with relocation, but it’s harder and harder to find even moderately affordable places to live.”

Congress appropriated $46.5 billion for emergency rental aid between two aid packages in December and March. The U.S. Treasury reported in August that about $222 million of that bucket had been spent. September numbers are expected to be made public by mid-October.

In total, the District, Maryland, Virginia and area counties that received funds directly from the federal government were issued more than $1.102 billion.

Guidance from the Treasury Department published earlier this week indicates that the federal government will try to redistribute funds within the same state whenever possible — perhaps moving money from a state struggling to get cash into the hands of renters into a county where demand has been high and funds have been flowing.

But in the District — where nearly 25,000 households have received rental assistance and more than 8,000 have been given cash to cover overdue utility bills via STAY DC — officials are holding out hope that the Treasury will consider shuffling money from elsewhere to D.C.

“Our position is that we should be considered for additional funds by Treasury because the resource that we do have will run out and we still have tremendous need,” Falcicchio said. “I don’t think that we will have any problem of getting this resource put to good use.”