Americans behind on their rent payments — and landlords desperate to stay above water — were supposed to be rescued by now. Congress allocated $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance for people impacted by the pandemic. Lawmakers approved $25 billion of that as far back as December. This money was supposed to make the eviction moratorium unnecessary, keeping renters in their homes and helping landlords survive the covid crisis, too. Yet the Treasury Department reported Wednesday that states still had distributed only $5.1 billion of that $25 billion by the end of July, seven months after Congress okayed it.
Treasury tried to put a positive spin on that news, pointing out that the number of households the program helped increased 15 percent last month, to 340,000, and that money was flowing to needy people: More than 60 percent of those receiving aid had incomes at or below 30 percent of their area’s median. Yet states still handed out only $1.7 billion, a tiny uptick from June. The amount of money flowing out still does not reflect the need. Some 6 million people are behind on their rent, and now they have no eviction moratorium to protect them.
Though the administration knew its moratorium might well not survive court review, the hope was at least to provide time for aid to get out the door. But the response was disappointing. Now that the moratorium is gone, it is only more critical for the aid to flow.
The problem is not the Treasury Department; it is the states and localities that are supposed to be distributing the aid. Some states have had to set up distribution systems from scratch. Others have been overwhelmed with applicants. Technical glitches have plagued application websites. Tenants and landlords lacking Internet access have had a harder time applying. And questions about documenting income and other qualifications for aid have slowed applications. Treasury emphasized once again Wednesday that states need not delay aid while applicants gather all their documents. It also threatened laggard states, saying that those failing to distribute rental aid quickly may lose their funding next month.
It should not come to that. States should commit to helping desperate renters, their lives upended by forces far beyond their control, and helping landlords, too, many of whom depend on the rent for their own livelihood. If local governments continue to fail, judges considering eviction cases should use whatever discretion they have to help people get the aid they are due and keep people off the street. Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, they may be the last line of defense for many desperate people.