Metropolis

The Government Is Helping People Pay Rent, but Something’s Gone Wrong

We gummed up a system that’s supposed to aid struggling Americans quickly.

An apartment building formerly owned by the Kushner Companies, run by the family of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, stands in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, March 19, 2018 in New York City. In dozens of rental buildings across New York City, the Kushner Companies filed false paperwork declaring that the buildings had zero rent-regulated tenants. The move allowed the company to push out rent-controlled tenants, raise rents and boost profits when it later sold the buildings. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Speed up the rental help. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last month, Congress passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package containing $20 billion in emergency rental assistance and homeless relief. These funds arrive on the heels of the $25 billion in rent assistance that Congress passed in late December and is now being disbursed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the billions of dollars in housing aid disbursed through the CARES Act last spring.

The help can’t come soon enough: Moody’s analysts say that, as of late December, 10 million renters were behind on rent, and 18 million renters tell the Census bureau they have little or no confidence they’ll be able to continue making rent payments on time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have extended their nationwide eviction moratorium to June 30, giving us a critical window to get funds to needy renters before they get booted from their homes.

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But how do cities, counties, and states ensure this money gets to the renters who most need it?

Recent research from New America (where we work), the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), New York University’s Furman Center, and others reveals that in the year since the COVID pandemic began, a combination of burdensome application requirements, patchwork distribution, and staffing challenges have kept rent programs across the country from assisting their neediest clients.

That’s not just a problem for renters. Moody’s estimates that tenants currently owe a combined $57 billion in back rent, much of it to small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own bills. Distressed renters are increasingly scrimping on household expenses and food, creating ripple effects for small businesses in their communities. More broadly, tackling homelessness is significantly more expensive than rent relief. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, compared to the average $5,700 back rent tenants currently owe.

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In response to these challenges, according to a recent survey from the NLIHC, state and local governments have formed or expanded more than 400 rental assistance programs to disburse CARES Act and other rent relief funds. The problem, as former Local Initiatives Support Corporation president Maurice Jones recently noted, is this: “Making the programs available is 20 percent of the job to be done. Eighty percent of the job is helping people access the program.” Unfortunately, not nearly enough people are able to.

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Advocates and local governments say rent-relief distribution in 2020 was slow and inequitable, favoring those with connections and know-how over those most in need. That’s because local programs instituted strict eligibility criteria beyond what was required by the CARES Act—for example, stipulating that applicants must have been current on rent before the onset of the pandemic—and hefty documentation requirements, like asking tenants to produce multiple forms of identification, detailed proof of their changed income, and current copies of their lease.

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Strict documentation requirements are meant to prevent fraud, but advocates say they do more to keep money out of the hands of deserving but vulnerable renters. A motivated grifter can easily doctor the necessary forms, but an overwhelmed single parent facing eviction may be at a loss to produce the sea of documents required to receive a few thousand dollars.

It’s easy to imagine why, in the midst of a pandemic, some documents are difficult to obtain. Many tenants lack a home printer, and libraries and community centers with printing facilities have been shut down for much of the last year. Many social-services agencies, which may provide proof of income or other government assistance, are also shuttered or harder to access. Not only that: Millions of tenants rent without a formal lease in place, whether because they are sublessees or because they are longtime occupants whose lease has long since expired.

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As a result of these and other hurdles, 80 percent of the programs NLIHC surveyed cited incomplete applications as a major barrier to distributing funds. Subsequently, 11 of 15 rent assistance programs surveyed by NLIHC said gathering documentation was a point in the application process where applicants tended to drop out.

In Las Vegas, New America found that the county hired 13 nonprofits last spring and summer to screen tenants for funds, but each organization instituted its own criteria and documentation requirements. The result, a local attorney said, was that he had “never seen more difficulty giving away money” in his life.

These documentation problems—and a focus on fraud over accessibility—are not unique to rent assistance. A recent report by New America’s New Practice Lab found that unemployment insurance is similarly “over-calibrated to try to catch people committing fraud” and this has resulted in a major increase in erroneous aid denials in the decade after the Great Recession.   Nor are they unique to the pandemic—a recent report from the Aspen Institute finds that rent assistance programs have long been rife with design and administration failures. But the challenges are all the more acute given the tens of millions of new entrants flooding rent assistance programs.

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Over the next few months, billions more dollars in rental assistance will make their way from the Treasury Department to states and counties, and finally to renters and landlords. It’s a chance for us to improve aid delivery, most importantly by becoming more flexible on documentation requirements.

On Feb. 22, the Department of the Treasury released guidance that gives grant programs wide latitude in the type of documents they can accept to prove that an applicant qualifies for rent relief. Local programs should take advantage of this latitude, in particular provisions that allow applicants to provide written “attestations” to prove COVID-related hardship, housing instability, and income when they are unable to produce official income statements, leases, and other documents.

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Local programs should also move away from requiring hard copies of documents and “wet signatures” on printouts, instead accepting documents sent by email and SMS, and e-signatures.

Many programs are already innovating in these ways, but to make the changes even more universal, local and federal actors must reframe how they think about rent assistance. Instead of focusing on compliance and fraud prevention, we need to focus on quickly getting funds to the neediest renters. Fraud is certainly a problem within some government programs, but emergency rental assistance—which amounts to a one-time infusion of a few thousand dollars to help struggling Americans get through an unexpected crisis—is an unlikely candidate for major grift.

These fixes will help the next round of relief reach renters in a more just and equitable way. But the impact won’t just be short term. The pandemic has exposed critical gaps in our country’s social safety net, and if we take the time to improve the delivery of critical assistance today, we will be better equipped for when the next disaster hits.

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