Audrina Garcia looked over a King County staffer’s shoulder on a chilly October afternoon in Kent as the two worked through a rent assistance application. Garcia estimates her family is 10 months behind on rent, amounting to about $20,000. She takes a deep breath. 

“Just saying it out loud freaks me out,” Garcia said. 

Like Garcia, millions of tenants across the United States fell behind on rent during the pandemic and are still struggling to catch up. Rent assistance is a linchpin of the government’s response: billions of dollars in federal funds meant to keep renters in their homes and help landlords cover their expenses even as the economic toll of the pandemic lingers. But local governments across the country have been slow to get that money to renters and landlords.

After lagging for months, King County has now begun a turnaround in getting millions of those dollars out the door, thanks in part to paperwork changes and in-person outreach like what the county did in Kent. 

King County has spent about $61 million, or nearly half, of $123 million in available funds from the latest round of federal funding and the amount paid each week is increasing. Another $22 million is going primarily to nonprofits for outreach and to some smaller administrative costs. 

For months, frustrated landlords had urged King County to speed up its spending. Now, “the money is moving. We’ve seen some great progress,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords.

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Many tenants and landlords are still waiting. Nearly 34,000 renters in King County have expressed a need for rent assistance. County payments have so far covered rent for about 6,100, and 21,800 applications are still in the process.

South King County hardest hit

Sitting on the concrete stairs of the Kent apartment complex, county program manager Kishan Scipio helps Garcia with her application. Garcia shares a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and four young children. The rent started to pile up when her husband was laid off from his roofing job in December, she said. She has since picked up full-time work, but the debt still looms. 

If she’s approved, King County can pay her landlord up to nine months of her back rent, plus three months of future rent. In exchange, the landlord would agree to forgive any pandemic debt beyond nine months. 

“I’m still in shock that this is all happening right now,” Garcia said of the assistance program. “It’s pretty mind-blowing.”

County governments across the state are racing against the clock to administer assistance programs. The state’s partial eviction moratorium is set to expire Sunday, but some cities like Seattle have their own eviction bans still in place.

The pandemic has not hit everyone equally. Across the Seattle area, 53,000 renters are still not caught up on rent, and Black and Hispanic or Latino renters are more likely to report being behind, according to a recent census survey. The highest concentrations of applications for King County rent assistance are in some of the county’s poorest and most diverse areas, such as Tukwila, Skyway and Kent. In those areas, 10% or more of households have applied for rent assistance. 

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Now, new challenges are arising. 

King County expected applications for help to level off this fall but saw 10,000 new applications for rent assistance in the past five weeks. The amount paid to each household is also higher than the county projected. 

If those trends continue, King County could run out of money with thousands of people still in the lurch, Leo Flor, director of the Department of Community and Human Services, told county lawmakers this week.

Door to door

Gino White grabs his MacBook and hops in a beige golf cart to make the rounds at a sprawling apartment complex in Federal Way. 

Knock. No answer. Knock. No answer.

When one tenant is reluctant to come to the door, White asks for just five minutes. He quickly ticks through the questions on the county form: Have you experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic? Are you behind on rent? “Do you make less than this amount?” he asks, pointing to the page.

The tenant checks the box and signs. White, who is with a small outreach organization called Generosity on the Go, moves on to the next apartment on his list.

Executive Director Chenae White tracks tenants in a color-coded spreadsheet, following up with them on her personal cellphone if her team can’t reach them in person. A county translation line helps tenants with limited English.

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“We are working with so many different populations of people in different age ranges,” she said. “Explaining things over the phone only helps so much.”

The federal government made the process easier after local governments lagged in distributing rent assistance this summer. In August, the Treasury Department told local governments they could use self-attestation forms, rather than waiting for detailed financial information from tenants and landlords. They could also pay landlords a portion of their assistance before their full application process is finished.

The change has made a dramatic difference, county and nonprofit workers say. To qualify, tenants must make less than $40,500 for a single person, about 50% of the area’s median income. Paperwork requirements bogged down the system, they said, especially requiring tenants to furnish proof of their income such as tax documents.

But completing the paperwork can still be a hurdle for tenants with little access to the internet or limited English skills. The long process of getting aid and multiple organizations involved can be confusing.

Some landlords have also been hesitant to agree to the county’s terms, which narrow their ability to raise rent or evict if they accept the assistance.

“A lot of tenants are scared. I’ve knocked on several doors and they thought that I’m telling them to leave, which I wasn’t,” said Amanda Scott, who leads Northwest Behavioral Guides and does tenant outreach. “I’m actually doing the opposite. I’m trying to help.”

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An ongoing need

Across Washington, jobless claims are on the decline and the state is inching toward economic recovery.

But with median rents in King County approaching $2,000 a month, debt quickly racked up when renters fell behind. Before the pandemic, more than 1in 5 King County renters spent more than half of their income on housing, meaning an unexpected expense or drop in income could have dire consequences.

“They may have lost their job during COVID. That put them in crisis. They’re getting back on their feet, but that’s going to be a slow recovery,” said Sarah Gallagher, a senior project director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Nationally, about 8.4 million renters were behind on rent in early October.

Yet, of the $25 billion approved by Congress in last December’s stimulus package, state and local governments have spent about 48%, according to the NLIHC.

So far, a national flood of evictions has not materialized, but the problems that predated the pandemic persist.

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“There is just not enough affordable rental housing for those who need it,” Gallagher said. “Until we address that problem … we’re going to continue to have a housing crisis.”

Here in King County, officials projected each household getting rent assistance would need about $8,000. But so far, the county is paying about $11,000 to pay off each family’s back rent because tenants owe more months of back rent than the county expected, said Flor, director of the human services department.

If applications hold steady at their current level, the county should be able to cover those who have applied and qualify for help, Flor said. But if another 10,000 applications arrive in the next month without additional funding, thousands could be left without help, Flor said.

At the Kent apartment complex, a tenant missed rent when she had to miss work at her job as a cook several times because of potential COVID-19 exposure. After experiencing homelessness before, she worried she could end up on the streets again.

“I just kept getting more behind and more behind,” said the tenant, who asked to use only her initials, A.B., to discuss her financial situation.

She learned about the county assistance program when she got a notice on her door. “I think it’s a big opportunity for a lot of people. A new beginning, a fresh start,” she said.

Vickey Stepney, another tenant at the Kent apartment complex, learned from an outreach worker she qualifies for four months of assistance, three of them to cover future rent. Unable to work as she recovers from back surgery, Stepney said she tries hard to stay up on her expenses. “If I don’t have $1 left, I pay all my bills,” she said.

But the assistance will get her caught up and “help me get up on my feet,” she said. “It will be a little relief.”

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