Where's The Rental Assistance? Inside Why Distribution Is Lagging

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In January, President Biden announced nearly $47 billion has been allocated for rental assistance. So why has only 10% of that federal aid been distributed? (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
In January, President Biden announced nearly $47 billion has been allocated for rental assistance. So why has only 10% of that federal aid been distributed? (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

First Person: A Renter Reflects On How Delayed Rental Assistance Shaped Her Life.

When Charmayne Hunter-Spencer applied for rental assistance in Texas, it was an easy process.

“The issue that I ran into was three months later," she says. "I didn’t hear from anyone as far as the agency was concerned with following up with me.”

No follow up … and no check.

About $47 billion in federal aid has been sent to states and cities for rental assistance.

But almost 89% of that has not been distributed. So why is all that money still sitting with cities and states?

"When there isn’t really explicit guidance or a place for people to go to ask very specific questions about their programs, communities tend to become quite risk averse," housing expert Ann Oliva says. "And they will default to the most difficult or the most documented processes.”

Today, On Point: Where's the rental assistance? Inside why distribution is lagging.


Ann Oliva, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (@annymoliva)

Bobby Wilkinson, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA).

Also Featured

Charmayne Hunter-Spencer, licensed substance abuse counselor from Atascocita, Texas.

Cathy Garcia, community organizer with Chainbreaker Collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interview Highlights

On how much federal aid has been distributed so far

Ann Oliva: "Yesterday, the Department of the Treasury released the most recent information that we have on the number of households who received assistance, and the amount of funding that's spent. So the emergency rental assistance was actually passed in two tranches. So for the purposes of this conversation, I will talk about ERA 1, which is the money, the $25 billion that was passed in December. And then there was a second tranche, close to that same amount as part of the American Rescue Plan.

"So treasury's data yesterday indicates that an additional $1.7 billion was spent on rent, utilities and arrears in the month of July. So a little more than 341,000 households were assisted. So that brings us to close to 1 million households assisted across the country. And about 21% of the ERA 1 funding fully expended."

Why is it taking so long for the majority of this money to be expended?

Ann Oliva: "The first thing I want to note is that our hardship data, the data that's published by the census, it's called the Pulse survey. The data that we looked at between the end of June and beginning of July indicates that there's about 11.4 million households, rental households that were not caught up on rent. And close to half of those 11.4 million indicated that they thought that they were possibly going to be evicted in the next two months.

"So that's again, that is a big difference between the 1 million that have been served so far and the 11.4 million who have indicated that they're behind on rent. And we know that this type of hardship also does not sort of evenly affect everybody. Renters of color consistently have hardship rates that are like two or two and a half times that of white renters. And we know that renters with children, 21% of renters who are parents or live with children reported that they weren't caught up on rent. So this is having a really big impact on on communities of color and people who have kids."

On how city and state agencies are handling rental backlogs

Ann Oliva: "Just to give folks a sense of scale, the largest homelessness or eviction prevention program that was ever funded at the federal level, it was funded in 2009 as part of the Great Recession, was $1.5 billion. And we are now talking about close to $50 billion. So the scale of the crisis is unprecedented and the scale of the resources that the federal government is putting forward is also unprecedented. So there are some challenges, logistical challenges and capacity challenges that run all the way from the federal government staff, down to local nonprofits who are administering these dollars.

"So there are things like being able to have enough staff, folks at the local level had to have enough staff in place in order to process applications. They had to build technology in order to get applications from the public. They had to conduct outreach to highly impacted communities. All of this takes a lot of person power and capacity. So that's part of the problem that we're seeing here. It is just very hard to build a program like this from scratch."

Is there anything the Treasury can do to ease this crunch?

Ann Oliva: "The Treasury does have the ability to decide whether they are going to reallocate funds or not. So they don't have to issue waivers. But what they can do also is partner with, for example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That does have very big rental assistance programs, like the Housing Choice Voucher program. And work with them to provide technical assistance to those grantees that are lagging behind. So that they can help to figure out what's happening, what the challenges are, what the barriers are, and send in some experts that can help those communities overcome those barriers."

How ready are cities and states to deal with what could be even more even more need?

Ann Oliva: "It's, again, different in different places across the country. But this is something that we are very worried about. There are sort of three big items that folks can be working on at the state and local level, and that's local and state moratoria. I know places like the District of Columbia and Minnesota have stronger state and local moratoria in place than the CDC. So they do have some additional protections already in place.

"There are some communities really working to implement, through their court system, eviction diversion programs. So, for example, when an eviction comes up in front of a judge, that judge can connect the tenant or landlord with the emergency rental assistance program to ensure that those funds are being used to divert that eviction. And again, as we've been talking about for this entire program, speeding up, getting that emergency rental assistance out the door into the hands of landlords and tenants who really need it."

On what the federal government can do to help Americans in need

Ann Oliva: "I would actually want to just note that what we really need to do is to ensure that we don't have to do this in an emergency again. So it's not necessarily about where the program is centralized. It's about having a long-term solution that will allow communities to expand and contract capacity when there is a crisis that we need to address. And we at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities believe really strongly that that should be done through the Housing Choice Voucher program, and an expansion to that program would make a huge difference in the next crisis."

This program aired on August 26, 2021.


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Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


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Kimberly Atkins Stohr Guest Host, On Point
Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.



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