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Federal rent relief aid went to low-income households, Treasury data shows

Signs adorn the porch of Henry Widener and his wife, Paula Riff, at the LaSalle Park Apartments in Chillum, Md. The two helped organize a rent strike among tenants. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

The federal government on Thursday released data on how it spent billions of rent relief dollars, offering a comprehensive snapshot of who tapped aid to remain in their homes in the middle of the pandemic’s economic chaos.

In 2021, 80 percent of the money distributed by the Emergency Rental Assistance Program went to low-income households, according to new data released Thursday by the Treasury Department. There were 3.8 million payments made to eligible households last year.

Of the program’s available $46.5 billion, $20.6 billion was spent last year. The remaining funds have already been obligated — for example, allocated to a pending application from a renter — or have not yet been spent by local jurisdictions, while a portion will be paid out by Treasury to local governments as they spend down their fundings, according to an agency spokesman.

The new data also breaks down the number of applicants for money by race, ethnicity and gender. While the demographic breakdown is available only for about 67 percent of the households, it gives a snapshot of how this money was distributed.

Last year, 42 percent of the primary applicants self-identified as Black, while 20 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino. A large proportion — some 65 percent — of the primary applicants receiving the aid money identified as women, a Washington Post analysis of the new data shows.

“The fact that we’re seeing in the data really significant access by very low-income people, by people of color, is a reflection of the fact that Treasury created a clear set of guidelines upfront and then encouraged grantees to adopt promising practices,” said Noel Poyo, Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for community economic development.

Poyo added: “You don’t reach very low-income people and communities of color by accident, because it’s actually harder to reach people who have been most impacted by the pandemic and that tend to face the most barriers to access.”

Evictions are about to restart as tenants wait on billions in unspent rental aid

Designed as a national pool of money for renters struggling to stay in their homes throughout the course of the pandemic, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program was funded through two relief packages passed in Congress in December 2020 and March 2021.

The program initially faced criticism over slow rollout. It funneled money directly to local jurisdictions, with some local governments able to quickly establish systems for processing applications, while others struggled with backlog and delays. A Post analysis showed that six months after the first program was approved by President Donald Trump in December 2020, only 12 percent of the initial $25 billion had reached renters.

The difficulties involved in dealing with hundreds of local jurisdictions — many with nuanced reporting and implementation processes for the program — hampered the efforts to capture a clear picture of who was receiving the money nationally until now.

Reporting is mandated in the statute, but the department acknowledged it has been stymied by many grantees of the program having little to no infrastructure to manage the millions of dollars that had to be distributed.

The department acknowledged this created challenges in producing a more comprehensive look at the distribution and in making it available publicly before now. The department will continue to monitor the data coming in, increasing the detailed portrait of who has used the program.

“There’s a lot of people who still have need, and that’s why we’ve still got our nose to the grindstone, but this is a significant indicator of progress,” Poyo said.