Metropolis

You Can’t Stop Evictions if You Don’t Pay People’s Rent

Some states have botched rental aid so badly they may never catch up.

A balloon with the words "No Eviction No" is seen as people gather outside of a New York City Marshall's office calling for a stop to evictions on August 31, 2021 in New York City. Housing activists and community members gathered and marched towards the NYC office of Gov. Hochul calling on her, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to amend and extend the evictions moratorium, which expires tonight. Rent Stabilization Association, New York's largest landlord group, has threatened to sue the state legislature if lawmakers extend the pandemic-era eviction moratorium. On August 12th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against parts of New York's eviction moratorium that allows renters to submit a hardship declaration form stating a loss of income due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic or that moving would harm their health. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Too many state and local governments have not earned gold stars distributing rental aid. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

On August 26, the Supreme Court struck down the federal eviction moratorium. That policy, enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nearly a year prior, protected renters around the country from the threat of losing their homes in the midst of the pandemic. At least 1.55 million fewer eviction cases than normal were filed while the moratorium was in place, despite economic turmoil that has left more renters than ever behind on payments.

While the exact timing of its demise came as a surprise, the end of the CDC moratorium was inevitable. The moratorium was a stop-gap measure, and one that never relieved rent obligations. Responding to pressure from tenant advocates and landlord groups, Congress appropriated $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance in December 2020 and March 2021 to help pay off debts accrued during the moratorium. While recent news coverage has highlighted the slow distribution of these funds, the picture on the ground is more complicated.

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Some programs have done a remarkably good job of getting assistance to tenants and landlords, and it appears to be having the intended effect: Current eviction filing rates in these areas are significantly lower than in places that have been slow to distribute aid. Hopefully that momentum can be maintained even with the CDC eviction moratorium struck down. But in places that have failed to get money out the door, it may be too late to stave off a flood of evictions.

In attempting to help tenants and landlords, Congress opted to decentralize rental assistance, distributing funds to nearly 500 state, county, city, and tribal governments around the country. The most recent Treasury Department progress report on these programs shows that, through the end of July, only some $4.7 billion had been spent, barely 11 percent of the total funding made available by Congress. But there are bright spots. Nearly 30 percent of total funds in the state of Virginia have been spent, and over a quarter of all funds in Texas. While the state program in Louisiana had spent less than 5 percent of available funds, the city of New Orleans had spent more than 35 percent. The city of Sacramento had spent half the funds available to it. Still, these examples are more the exception than the norm. By the end of July, 30 states had spent less than 10 percent of total funds allocated to them.

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Not all low-spending programs should be treated as failures. In some cases, there’s simply more money than there is need. Montana, for example, distributed $14.2 million by the end of July, just 4 percent of the $352 million available to the state. That looks bad on paper, but recent estimates from the National Equity Atlas—a joint project of PolicyLink and the USC Equity Research Institute—suggest that total rental debt in Montana was only about $12 million. By that metric, Montana’s program should be regarded as a success: Need has been met. The remaining funds—well over $300 million—can soon be reallocated to states in greater need.

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On the other hand, big states like Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee have disbursed rental assistance slowly, despite considerable need. The National Equity Atlas  estimates that more than a million renter households in just those five states owe nearly $2.5 billion in back rent. Yet they collectively had distributed only $431 million by the end of July, a mere 6 percent of rental assistance allocated to them. It’s noteworthy that these states have also been reluctant to provide tenants with additional protections during the pandemic. Georgia and Ohio, for instance, were two of just seven states that never implemented a state-level eviction moratorium.

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What’s particularly frustrating about the slow rollout of funds in these states—and in a range of local programs nationwide—is that their ultimate success likely hinges on initial performance. Programs build trust when they prove themselves capable of developing functional application systems, doing outreach, and processing claims quickly. Those that are inaccessible, slow, or unable to help tenants and landlords—whether as a result of limited technical capacity, misplaced concern about fraud, or simple negligence—will fail. If you haven’t been able to get more than 5 percent of available funds out the door at this point, what credibility do you have in the eyes of landlords?

What’s going wrong on the ground? The Treasury Department has encouraged a number of steps to streamline distribution of aid, such as tenant self-attestation to determine program eligibility, yet many programs haven’t embraced these reforms and continue to insist on collecting a substantial amount of paperwork, thereby slowing down the process. Technical glitches in application systems haven’t helped. For nearly two months, people trying to access New York’s rental assistance program weren’t able to save an in-progress application.

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Where rental assistance is getting distributed, it seems to be having its intended effect. We paired the records of new eviction filings from June and July collected by the Eviction Lab with the Treasury Department’s data on rental assistance distribution. We focused on areas in which the CDC moratorium was the only remaining eviction protection—excluding places like New York City and Austin, Texas, that had additional protections in place—and on jurisdictions in which only a single rental assistance program was available. Eviction filings over those two months, relative to the historical average, were significantly lower in places that managed to push out a larger share of rental assistance. The differences are substantial: The city of Arlington, Texas, distributed only 9.5 percent of their initial allocation of rental assistance by the end of July and saw 846 eviction cases filed in June and July, 98 percent of the historical average. By contrast, only 162 cases were filed in Chesterfield County, Virginia, over those two months, 15 percent of the historical average in a county that had spent 88 percent of its initial rental assistance allocation. You can see the relationship in this chart:

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A scatter plot showing how many evictions municipalities saw in June and July as a share of the historical average, as well as how much of their federal rental assistance funds they have spent. There appears to be a relationship between low spending and a high number of evictions.
The places that have spent less of their federal rental relief funding are seeing more evictions. Peter Hepburn and Erika Martinez/Eviction Lab
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The end of the federal eviction moratorium may jeopardize the success of emergency rental assistance, even in places that have made good on distributing aid. Landlords intent on removing tenants now have little to restrain them.

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Still, emergency rental assistance offers the best opportunity for landlords to be made whole, and many may choose that option rather than evicting tenants in arrears. But the promise of such programs rings hollow in places that aren’t rapidly distributing assistance to landlords.

The rollout of emergency rental assistance serves as a reminder that policy design needs to be responsive to the needs of those it is meant to serve—in this case both tenants and landlords. For tenants, that means policymakers must be more sensitive to the realities of poverty in this country: that not everyone has a laptop or access to high-speed internet to complete an online application; that many people don’t have email addresses; that documentation requirements aren’t just a hassle, but in many cases an insurmountable barrier. For landlords, it means authorities must recognize that time is of the essence. Dollars spent sooner have the potential to go a lot further in both paying down debts and buying trust.

Congress is currently weighing a once-in-a-generation expansion of the social safety net. The pandemic has made painfully clear how important such an investment is, and also provides lessons about how such programs should—and shouldn’t—be designed. Now is the time to start doing social policy differently: strip away administrative burdens and thinly veiled concerns about fraud, and instead emphasize equality of access, ease of use, and timeliness. This is how we can keep people housed, and how we can begin to rebuild trust in the social welfare state.

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