More of the same from localities: failure to mobilize an effort to provide rental assistance

PHOTO BY MAX RIVLIN-NADLER

As we scrutinize just how extraordinary COVID’s detriment has been to some Americans, but then not to others (some have only gotten richer since the pandemic started), we must be conscious of the government’s failure to provide approved aid to renters in need.

In a piece in VOX by Jerusalem Demsas, titled, “What happened to the $45 billion in rent relief?”, she conveys just how unscrupulous the rollout has been, from the standpoint of localities.

Getting money into the hands of renters has been exceedingly complicated — the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found over 340 different programs attempting to administer the federal aid. Some programs require onerous documentation; others don’t make it easy for landlords to apply and most put the onus on tenants to provide extensive proof of need. And Ashbes is far from unique; many advocates Vox spoke with said tenants often don’t even know the aid is available to them. All of this underscores the difficulty of aiding those at highest risk of eviction.

The context of this difficulty is that the federal government has never before provided so much aid to renters. The unparalleled action taken by former President Donald Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enact an eviction moratorium, in addition to the extended unemployment benefits, the economic impact payments, and funding in the CARES Act for housing stability, has kept millions of families afloat. Now, the tens of billions in rent relief is an opportunity to keep millions of people in their homes, and an extraordinary challenge to states and localities, many of which have never administered this type of aid before.

What I find particularly vexatious is correlated to the fact that these localities don’t understand that many of their residents struggling to pay rent — in some cases, heavily backdated — just simply do not know how to go about applying for assistance. If the federal government approved billions of dollars for rental assistance, why weren’t these localities prepared to launch a campaign for these renters and landlords? It seems to me they could have organized a task force to spread out in individual communities — specifically, rural communities, where perhaps even more assistance is needed.

Consider this from Demsas:

Time, knowledge, and bureaucracy: These are the challenges facing rent relief programs racing to dole out funds.

States and localities have never before had to set up rent relief programs to distribute federal aid. To do so, programs needed to hire staff, set up websites, comply with any additional regulations or goals set by their state legislatures, and conduct outreach. Even with best efforts, most experts Vox spoke with were skeptical that it would have been possible for programs to move fast enough to get all the aid out the door before the end of June.

But that also reflects government’s lack of engagement with some of the most marginalized members in their communities.

What’s unmistakable about the ordeal is the explicit notion that taxpayers fund the government to develop methods to help assist people through these challenging times; but, yet again, the government can’t find a way to even formulate an organized process for these renters in need.

Demsas makes a reference to the bureaucratic struggles these localities may be experiencing. Let’s look at these struggles more closely:

Landlords have been hurting; this is to be expected, but it’s more detrimental because of “mom and pop” landlords. Left to pay their mortgages out of pocket, they are on a mission to get judges to approve a motion to end the eviction moratorium.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “41 percent of all rental units are owned by individual investors” or “mom and pop landlords.” That means these landlords are unlikely to be able to weather months of nonpayment and still keep up with their own expenses.

Landlords may look at this entire calamity as perilous; perhaps, at this point, they want to get the tenants out, so that they can look for new renters who have had stability during the pandemic. Yes, that works to alleviate their struggles, but it does nothing to solve the cataclysmic issue. In other words, if a landlord rented to a tenant who was responsible, civil, and prompt with their rental payments before the pandemic, then why hold it against them? The American Rescue Act created a tremendous opportunity for these landlords and tenants to get relief. These localities should have been preparing at the beginning of the pandemic, and even during the pandemic’s destruction, as well.

Furthermore, when we look even deeper at the bureaucratic struggles, we now understand that many states have made it even more exigent for renters to be approved for this aid.

There are two parts to this problem. One is unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, like Massachusetts originally requiring applicants to produce their physical birth certificates, and the other is necessary bureaucratic hurdles — there has to be some way for programs to determine who needs help and how much.

The interplay between getting money out fast and making sure that no one is gaming the system (or, more generously, that the money is getting to the people who need it the most) is not new. Nor is it easy to simply cast blame on the individual programs or the federal government — it is inherently difficult to aid indigent residents. But it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the simplicity of depositing stimulus payments into the accounts of tens of millions of Americans, which did not require residents to prove anything to access the funds quickly. People are quick to point out that there have never before been rent relief programs in most states, but that begs the question — why not?

It’s imperative to create a process for applicants that dissuades fraud and wrongdoing. However, you can’t make it inexorably unmanageable for those who may not have the resources to properly apply. Again, as I alluded to earlier, this is where the task force could have been utilized in communities to provide the correct resources for those who may have more complications than others.

The most onerous singularity of the government’s disorganization and lack of distribution of aid is going to be a very consequential detriment by the end of June. So many folks have been saved from eviction because of the moratorium, but they will lose that protection. As Demsas’ article conveys, there is no possibility of the aid being distributed before the end of June.

We also have to keep in mind that while some have been able to keep up with their payments, they are barely hanging in there, due to back rent payments. Demsas referenced a few examples where some tenants have sold everything in their unit so that they can pay the rent. One woman even sold her eggs. Imagine this: you can scrape by, but you have nothing in return. None of this is reasonable, due to the circumstances of COVID’s destruction of so many working Americans. While we can acknowledge an improvement is occurring now, due to vaccinations, it doesn’t make up for the fact that millions suffered for over a year in financial ruin.

Finally, if you ask me, there’s no excuse, and let’s reflect on this:

An unprecedented ordeal, such as a devastating pandemic, should have also been handled in an anomalous fashion. If anything, COVID’s toll on the population should have been a wake-up call for not just the federal government, but also these localities. I think this pandemic has taught us all that we have to be prepared even more thoroughly at the state level. It’s essential to provide applicable solutions for people who need the help — not make it harder.

Works Cited:

1. Demsas, Jerusalem. “What happened to the $45 billion in rent relief?” VOX. May 24, 2021. https://www.vox.com/22429430/renters-rent-relief-eviction-moratorium-housing-market. Accessed May 26, 2021.