Most of the more than $46bn in rental assistance approved by Congress has not yet reached struggling renters during the coronavirus pandemic, even as a tenuous moratorium on evictions faces an ongoing legal battle and a looming expiration date.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, supported by two sweeping congressional relief packages, has distributed about $5bn to assist with housing payments and utilities, marking roughly 11 per cent of the total appropriated by Congress, according to the Treasury Department.
Aid to roughly 1 million households has trickled out at a modest pace – aid was distributed to 341,000 households in July, up from 293,000 in June and 157,000 in May – and the Treasury Department points to rent relief supporting the lowest-income Americans, with 60 per cent of households earning no more than 30 per cent of their area’s median income, according to the White House.
But even as the federal moratorium on evictions was set to expire last month, before progressive lawmakers and activists pressured Joe Biden’s administration into action to salvage the crisis, the increase in the number of households that received aid that month marked less than half of the increase between May and June. Last month, the programme sent out roughly $1.7bn, slightly above June’s payout of $1.5bn.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department warned that “too many grantees have yet to demonstrate sufficient progress in getting assistance to struggling tenants and landlords.”
“After September, programmes that are unwilling or unable to deliver assistance quickly will be at risk of having their rental assistance funding reallocated to effective programs in other high-need areas,” the agency said.
Millions of Americans are behind on rental payments, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than 2.5 million of those households have annual incomes of less than $25,000, and another 1 million earn less than $35,000, according to US Census Bureau data collected by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Housing advocates have repeatedly warned that prematurely ending federal, state and local eviction bans without getting that assistance to vulnerable households could endanger the lives of millions of Americans who have fallen behind on rent.
On 25 August, the Biden administration updated guidelines that it anticipates will help streamline applications to speed up relief, including directing local officials to let tenants use self-reported financial information and allowing states to distribute bulk payments in advance of federal payouts, amoth other maneuvers.
Across the US, aid has been tied up in bureaucratic dysfunction, and it is unclear whether changes from the White House will begin to untangle the issues plaguing state and local agencies and confusing vulnerable tenants. The Treasury Department notes that “hundreds of thousands of applications are in the pipeline beyond those that have already been paid.”
In New Orleans, roughly one-sixth of nearly 17,000 applicants received rental relief, and less than half of the city’s $46m share of federal aid had been received as of 2 August.
By the end of June, New York officials had not paid out any of the $800m it received in first-round funds, and last month, the state paid out only $2.7m, according to the Treasury Department.
Within a few weeks, a likely final federal pause on evictions is set to expire on 3 October – if it survives a challenge at US Supreme Court – putting the administration and state and local officials on a critical timeline.
A previous eviction moratorium from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lapsed on 31 July, and barring any White House or congressional action to extend those protections, which expired during a recess at the House of Representatives, progressive lawmakers protested at the US Capitol.
Following months of warnings and calls from Democratic lawmakers to revive the ban, the White House on 3 August advanced measures to protect residents from eviction in areas with high rates of Covid-19 transmission.
Treasury officials, acknowledging the slow pace of aid, said that “helping develop a new national infrastructure for rental assistance and eviction prevention that did not previously exist” has scaled relatively quickly, but “funds are still not flowing fast enough to renters and landlords.”
“Treasury is continuing an all-out effort, in coordination with the White House and interagency partners, to get the word out about the availability of rental assistance and to support grantees in ramping up their efforts,” the agency said last month.
While the freeze on evictions has halted an immediate crisis, a group of bipartisan mayors in 33 cities, lawmakers, housing advocates and other stakeholders have warned that temporary fixes cannot address the lasting impacts of the nation’s affordability crisis, compounded by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
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