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Federal aid for pandemic rents helped 2.5 million households. Nearly 5 million are still fighting

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The program has been a success in many communities, but aid has been extremely slow in reaching the door to others as new state and local programs have been set up to distribute the money.

Fifteen states had paid less than 20 percent of the total amount of money each received from the federal government by the end of October, according to the latest available data, and some of those states still have a significant proportion of their tenant needs. .

In four of those states (Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, and Alabama), more than 20 percent of low-income tenants were behind on their rent at the time, according to a U.S. National Equity Atlas which was shared with CNN. The data tool is managed by researchers from PolicyLink and the USC Equity Research Institute.

The group estimated that 4.7 million low-income households across the country were behind on rent in October and could be eligible for pandemic aid.

“It is emblematic of the inequality of the pandemic and of those who are still suffering,” said Sarah Treuhaft, vice president of research. a PolicyLink.

A slow start

Households are eligible for cash if they have experienced financial difficulties due to the pandemic, have an income equal to or less than 80% of the average income in their area, can demonstrate the risk of homelessness or already meet the requirements for unemployment benefits.

Hundreds of programs that distribute aid across the country vary in how they determine if a tenant was at risk of becoming homeless and what documents they needed. Those who withdrew money faster were generally less restrictive, according to research for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Some states had to come up with a whole new program to distribute funds, which often required the creation of an online portal and the hiring of staff. Many did not begin distributing the funds until the spring, months after Congress authorized the first round of emergency rent assistance.

Alabama had to set up a new program from scratch, which it did quickly, and launched its statewide rental assistance program in March. But he was soon overwhelmed.

“The initial delay will always keep our accumulated disbursements behind other states that deployed funds in current and experienced programs,” said David Young, multifamily administrator of the Alabama Housing Finance Authority. He noted that the state program is on track to use all the federal money allocated to it.

South Carolina needed the approval of the legislature before creating its statewide rental assistance program. It was not released until April and its first payments were not made until late June, said Chris Winston, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Authority for Finance and Housing Development.

“We’re getting more apps out the door, but we’re still not seeing the level we were expecting,” Winston said.

The state program has made several changes since its launch to make it easier to implement. Documentation requirements have been relaxed, it has begun to provide funding directly to tenants if the landlord did not respond, has doubled call center staff, and has partnered with nearly 40 organizations that offer face-to-face assistance to applicants.

Move forward at a key time

Many rental relief programs that started slowly were able to accelerate their spending in the summer. In June alone, they spent twice what they spent from January to April.

The climb came just in time. The federal the moratorium on evictions expires in August after almost a year of existence.

It also helped that Treasury relaxed some of its guidelines, making it clearer that programs can rely on applicants’ self-attestations without further documentation.

“Most people already know about aid. There are billboards across the state that weren’t there in the summer,” said Lindsey Siegel, director of housing advocacy at the Welfare Society. Atlanta Legal.

He said there is now a bottleneck of people waiting for their applications to be processed, but that there is more need.

A recent one statement published by the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs said there was no data-based justification for the amount allocated to the state, suggesting that the percentage of funds spent is a poor indicator of effectiveness. He also said the state had fewer aid applications, in part because of its low unemployment rate, noting that Georgians pay lower average rent and utility payments than states. high cost.

However, 28% of low-income tenants were behind on rent in October, a higher percentage than in any other state, according to the National Equity Atlas.

As in many other states, some county-level rental assistance programs in Georgia have disbursed money faster than the state-run system. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department began the process of displacement of unused funds in places that have run out and there are still people who need help.

Local programs have been successful

Some local programs, such as the one in Harris County, Texas, were successful early on in reaching troubled tenants. The county worked with the city of Houston and has distributed most of the nearly $ 300 million it received from the Treasury, helping more than 67,000 families. The program already had funds available by the end of March, said Rafael Lemaitre, communications director for the Harris County Judge’s Office.

Two initiatives within the program made it unique. A robust navigation system used nine local organizations across the county that spread the aid available and helped people prepare their applications. He also enacted an eviction intervention effort, proactively contacting tenants with upcoming eviction cases and their landlords.

He helped Houston resident Michael Mata stay in his apartment after losing his job as a machinist amid a round of pandemic-related layoffs. He said he received enough money to pay the overdue rent, the current rent and a month in advance.

“I try to be one of those people who are composed, but I was stressed at the time. I’m very grateful,” Mata said.

There can always be tenants who need it

Even the sites that have distributed most of the money received from the federal government may not have been able to reach all the tenants who need it.

“No, there’s not enough money to meet all the needs,” said Leah Barton, who works for the Harris County Office of County Administration and helps run the rental assistance program.

“There are some people for whom short-term assistance was what they needed to bridge the gap while coming out of unemployment or working part-time. But there is also a group of people structurally upside down. The affordable housing crisis is real, ”he added.

States like New York and New Jersey have exhausted all of their rental assistance funds, but they still have thousands of low-income tenants back in their rent. They may receive additional funds once the Treasury reallocates unused funds.

The county-wide eviction rate has risen since the federal moratorium expired in August. But it was not a big leap and the eviction rate is still well below the pre-pandemic historical average, said Peter Hepburn, a researcher at Princeton University’s The Eviction Lab.

In Alabama, the approval process has accelerated for tenants facing eviction.

“I think we were able to avoid a lot of evictions,” said Michael Forton, legal director of Legal Services Alabama.

“But after doing this job for 17 years, I know there will always be a need,” he added.

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