How to Get Federal Help to Pay Your Rent

·9 min read

It's tempting to think that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us and that it's time to move on. We've been asked to be patient and responsible for such a long time already—putting off holidays, celebrations, and the simple pleasures of daily life in the name of public safety. In fairness, there is some reason to be hopeful. Rising job numbers, a stronger (if still struggling) economy, various industries striving to stay afloat—all of these are legitimate reasons for optimism.

Still, the financial strife of the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and without the protection of the CDC moratorium on evictions, and with the lion's share of federal funds allocated for Emergency Rental Aid (ERA) untouched, things could get much worse very quickly.

Current data shows that 5,843,000 American families are behind on rent, owing an estimated $14,800,000,000 to landlords nationwide. The majority of renters who owe rent are from low-income households, and nearly half of them (49 percent) have children. People of color make up 65 percent of the renters in the United States who are behind on rent, adding another item to the list of ways in which racial disparities have been exacerbated during the age of COVID.

Among tenants who are unable to pay their rental debt, only 7 percent have received aid. A whopping 61 percent haven't applied, and 22 percent more are waiting to hear back from authorities. To make matters even more dire, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that, as of July 2021, "up to 80 percent of households behind on rent and at risk of eviction [were living] in communities with over 100 percent COVID-19 case growth rates."

When it comes to housing insecurity, Claudia Aiken, director of the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania (HIP), only expects the numbers to keep rising. According to Aiken, "Research has shown that evictions increase the risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission. Housing insecurity also has a host of negative effects on households' health and financial wellbeing, and on their children's educational stability and attainment; surveys also show that many low-income renters are making impossible tradeoffs in order to pay rent—sacrificing food and medical care, and taking on expensive debt."

When millions of Americans are in such a precarious situation, it impacts everyone's security and well-being. So, knowing that this crisis is ongoing and likely about to take an even worse turn, why aren't tenants getting the aid they need? What resources are out there to help us make ends meet?

Which Elements of Emergency Rental Aid Are Working

It's not all bad news. Actually, the nationwide moratorium on evictions and the advent of a federal aid program for renters who are struggling is an exciting bit of federal innovation. Charles McNally, director of external affairs for the NYU Furman Center, says that the most recent governmental program that even came close to this was the DHAP-Katrina program, which provided aid to about 36,000 households in New Orleans after the eponymous hurricane.

"But that was one city, right?" says McNally, "This is every city in the entire country, no matter the size. It's significantly larger than anything that's been done before."

When COVID-19 hit, Congress designated $45 billion for ERA. While it has, thus far, only distributed $2.3 billion of that sum, it still helped 420,000 households in August 2021 alone—far more than the DHAP-Katrina program could have dreamed of. What's more, the number of households helped is growing by leaps and bounds month after month. In July, for example, only 364,000 households got help, some 56,000 less than in August.

According to Aiken, "Jurisdictions implementing ERA have learned a lot since the first programs were launched in 2020." Many changes that have been carried out, include streamlining applications, setting up hotlines and call centers to facilitate applications, and ensuring that outreach is sensitive to an applicant's specific needs, such as speaking English as a second language or not being as comfortable filing an electronic application. Aiken says that local governments have also been "building much smarter intake systems that automatically validate applicants' submissions, match tenant and landlord applications, provide updates to applicants, and more."

In New York, for example, the application process has come under harsh criticism for being onerous and requiring certification by both a tenant and their landlord. This demands a level of cooperation that may be hard to come by, depending on where you live, how you get along with the property owner, and even whether or not you know who that property owner is. This isn't the norm, though, according to McNally. Other states allow tenants to self-certify their applications, essentially attesting, under penalty of perjury, that they have lost income as a result of the pandemic and need this assistance to avoid eviction.

Even with lessons learned and changes carried out, the application process and levels of take-up still vary widely from state to state and even from county to county. And there's still a lot of tweaking that needs to happen if we want to avoid mass evictions, an increase in unhoused populations, and all the economic and social fallout that comes with them.

Additional Solutions Are Needed

Despite the fact that this innovative program is an important step towards a broader and more permanent social safety net, similar to the way Social Security changed the notion of a person's right to economic stability when it was first instituted in 1935, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Beginning September 30, 2021, the U.S. Treasury has already begun to determine which "excess funds" should be reallocated, and many are concerned that ERA1 funds may not reach those who need them in time.

"Asking renters and landlords to cooperate is the source of many of the challenges and delays currently associated with ERA programs," says Aiken. "Our surveys of tenants applying for ERA have shown that many don't know their landlords, or have experienced landlord harassment."

She also cited issues related to awareness of the program, especially among marginalized or disadvantaged communities, despite outreach efforts, as well as a "digital divide," which makes applying for programs online a struggle for anyone who doesn't do well with tech-based solutions or who doesn't speak English fluently.

In other words: Not everyone has access to the necessary technology to apply, and those who do may not know that ERA1 even exists or may not be able to navigate the forms. Likewise, people who get paid in cash or don't have a formal lease may not be able to apply because they lack the documentation, such as bank statements, required by many jurisdictions.

Plus, of course, having the time to bumble through convoluted forms or sit in a public library to access the internet is a privilege, one that low-income households are less likely to have. Red tape is always frustrating, but in this case it may also determine whether someone has a roof over their head.

The biggest change, though, may be simply making the ERA1 program a permanent feature of the American landscape—just like Social Security, SNAP Benefits, unemployment benefits, and Medicare.

"The rental market is so big, varied, and locally different, that it's hard to think of a global lesson to learn [besides] the need for a stronger safety net," said McNally. "In the wake of COVID, there was a national consensus that people shouldn't be made homeless as a result of having lost income due to the pandemic. But you can really apply that to a lot of volatile situations that cause people to lose income. If we had a standing Emergency Rental Assistance program, that would have huge benefits for many millions of households."

Where Can You Find Help?

Apply for rental assistance.

The first, and most important, thing to know is that it is still possible to apply for rental assistance in almost all jurisdictions across the United States. The NLIHC has a very handy search tool that allows renters to find the correct forms for their county, tribe, or housing authority.

Seek out utility assistance, too.

It's also possible to find the right application forms through the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), where you can also see answers to most questions regarding eligibility. The ERA1 program may also provide assistance with paying for utilities.

Check if your state has eviction protections in place.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University estimates that the CDC moratorium on evictions prevented 1.55 million eviction filings before it expired in August of 2021. In some areas, though, such as New York, D.C., and Minnesota, local or state governments have extended protections to a certain extent.

Get legal aid.

It's also important to note that not all eviction filings end up finding in favor of the landlord. If you find yourself facing the threat of eviction, it's crucial to get legal aid as quickly as possible. The Eviction Lab has compiled resources that explain what you may expect from an experience with Housing Court; both the Lab and McNally recommended, an organization that provides top-notch pro bono legal aid to folks across the country who are facing housing insecurity.

If you do need to leave, explore affordable housing or shelters.

You can find local community resources on Just Shelter's interactive map, which will link you to the specific services you need, whether that means an LGBTQIA+ friendly shelter or an affordable housing solution for families with children.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, it caught us all unawares. Every industry took a hit; every individual has been touched in some way by the agony of this worldwide disaster. As we head into the next pandemic winter, we're a whole lot smarter than we were two years ago. Still, we need to find a way to get the available resources into the hands of those who need them, and fast, to keep everyone safe, secure, and warm.

Who knows? Maybe we'll even learn an important lesson about supporting the vulnerable members of society at all times, instead of only when disaster strikes.