Over the course of the pandemic, Washington allotted a lot of money to help tenants who couldn’t keep up with the rent: $46.6 billion. That’s almost twice as much as, and on top of, what the government usually spends each year helping low-income renters through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known as Section 8. The number was at least in the right ballpark to cover the payments missed by the country’s roughly 43 million renter households, many of whom lost jobs when the economy contracted last year.
But a safety net only works if you can get it set up where it needs to be, and all these months into the crisis, local jurisdictions are still not doing a very good job. As Annie Lowrey puts it, writing about government benefits more broadly, “little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist.” Of the $25 billion the U.S. Treasury doled out this February for rent relief, local partners had delivered just $3 billion by June 30.
That’s particularly important this week because the eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last September expires on Saturday, July 31. That public health order has not given tenants ironclad protection, but it does appear to have kept evictions below pre-pandemic rates in jurisdictions without their own moratoriums, including cities like Cincinnati and Dallas and states like Indiana and Missouri, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
In other words, beginning next week, millions of families may face evictions that should have been avoided.
Certain cities and states have done an especially disgraceful job. Los Angeles has spent $23 million out of $236 million, with more than 100,000 applications filed for more than $530 million in aid. Georgia has $552 million to spend and as of June 15 had disbursed just $7 million. New York state set aside $2.7 billion and, as of a couple of weeks ago, had given out just $117,000.
What makes this all the more discouraging is that it’s a replay of last year, when cities and states struggled to allot $2.6 billion in CARES Act money for rent help. Pennsylvania, for example, failed to give out $108 million of $175 million in federal rent relief money before the deadline—so most of the cash got redistributed to the state’s Department of Corrections. All in all, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, $1 of every $6 earmarked for rent assistance last year went toward some other public expense.
How did we let this happen? There are a few different explanations.
First, software problems. Nearly a decade on from the healthcare.gov debacle, most institutions of government remain unacceptably behind the times in all matters related to computers. Tenants and social workers have described challenges navigating cumbersome, glitchy online portals.
Second, application design. Long and complicated applications for rent assistance apparently discouraged many tenants in need, especially immigrants without documents. In a January survey of 2020 rent relief programs, the National Low Income Housing Coalition identified this as a problem—nearly half of surveyed programs required Social Security numbers, for example.* Eighty percent of programs said incomplete applications made it hard to hand out cash.
Third, landlords. Specifically, the money is supposed to go to landlords—often in exchange for some kind of assurance they will not evict the tenant for the delay for a certain period of time. Getting landlords and tenants to work together, even for a common goal, hasn’t always been easy.
Fourth, outreach. Unlike homeowners, who have regular contact with banks that can tell them about federal mortgage forbearance, more than half of the nation’s tenants don’t even know there is a federal relief program. That’s according to a survey conducted in May and published by the Urban Institute last month, which notes that less than 6 percent of landlords and 11 percent of tenants had applied for federal relief—a fraction of those who say they’re behind.*
Fifth, local incompetence. How else to explain why New York state—facing one of the worst renter-household crises in the country—has waited so long to get money to people who need it?
Sixth, existing disinvestment. Washington turned on a fire hose of cash, but just like state unemployment systems, local housing agencies and nonprofits that help low-income tenants apply for help got swamped. A high-functioning social welfare program takes practice, and even 18 months in, many organizations are having trouble scaling up to get the job done.
It’s worth adding that not every place has been so slow to act. The Treasury Department singled out a regional partnership in Houston and Harris County, Texas, which has helped more than 36,000 households, and the state of Virginia, which has also worked quickly. Philadelphia has sent out more than $122 million in rent and utility aid since the beginning of the pandemic (though even it has a backlog of thousands of applications). Chicago has successfully delegated some of its citywide allocation to various local nonprofits to make sure vulnerable communities don’t get left out.
The situation is getting marginally better. In January, Moody’s estimated U.S. renters owed $52.6 billion; that figure has fallen to $24 billion. But the decline may be more thanks to unemployment insurance and stimulus checks than it is to rent relief. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than half of low-income households spent their stimulus checks on rent.
Meanwhile, urban rental markets are heating up again, with Zillow reporting a 5.1 percent jump since March—its largest quarterly rent increase on record. It’s true that pandemic-era shutdowns brought a bit of a reprieve to big-city tenants who saw rents decline, but not all of them: Vacancy rates fell in more cities than they rose, especially in Sun Belt cities where renters tend to be proportionately less well-off. While vacancy rates leapt for the highest-quality apartments during the pandemic, they did not budge at the lower end of the market.
Restoring the renter-landlord relationship to its pre-pandemic status quo—evictions, homelessness, millions of rent-burdened households—is not good enough. President Joe Biden promised to boost aid to low-income tenants across the board. The slow rollout of federal rent relief should be a warning: You won’t get very far helping people in normal times if you can’t find a way to help them in a crisis.
Correction, July 27, 2021: This piece originally misidentified the National Low Income Housing Coalition as the National Low Income Housing Center and the Urban Institute as the Urban Land Institute.