When the pandemic hit, Angela Bears was afraid that she would bring the virus home to her 3-year-old son, who was in treatment for kidney cancer.
She fell behind on rent for her Kansas City, Mo., home when she decided it was safer to stop going to her warehouse job. Bears said she applied for rental assistance multiple times this spring but never heard back.
Without any government aid, she is now $5,000 behind on her rent and fearing eviction. She is asking for donations online to stay in her home.
“I’ve got boxes. I’ve started packing,” Bears said. “The only thing at this point that matters to me is that my son doesn’t get sick.”
Bears is one of thousands of Americans who have been shortchanged by a yawning disconnect between two well-meaning policies lawmakers passed in response to the pandemic.
One, a federal ban on some evictions, is set to expire Saturday. Another, a $46.5 billion emergency fund aimed at getting rent to tenants at risk of eviction, has been painfully slow to get off the ground, with some states and counties unable to spend even a dollar of the money they were provided months earlier.
The expiration of the federal moratorium, following a last-ditch effort by congressional Democrats to revive it that is expected to fail, will leave renters with few pandemic-era protections as courts begin processing steep backlogs of eviction cases. Only nine states and the District of Columbia have some kind of emergency protections for tenants that will last into August, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
That has magnified criticism of the sluggish Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which some advocates say was flawed from the get-go because it relies on state and local governments across the country to create and administer their own programs. While some states quickly set up programs, others struggled to locate people in need or else received so many applications that the onslaught overwhelmed staff and software systems, causing months-long delays.
Six months after the aid program was approved by President Donald Trump in December, just 12 percent of the first $25 billion in funds had reached people in need due to loss of income from the pandemic, according to the Treasury Department. More than three months after President Joe Biden signed a March relief package with another $21.5 billion for the program, even less of that has been spent.
Unlike other coronavirus aid programs such as stimulus checks or child tax credits, Congress designed the program as a partnership between the federal government, where the money begins, and states and localities, which have leeway to distribute the funds largely as they see fit.
As problems arose, some states and cities stopped accepting applications to make fixes. But the trade-offs are steep: The longer it takes programs to come back online, the longer vulnerable households wait for help.
The city of Los Angeles stopped taking applications after seven weeks because of “unprecedented demand that far exceeded the program funding,” according to a spokeswoman. North Carolina officials had to hire an outside vendor to quickly issue checks to thousands of recipients. The city of Phoenix was overwhelmed by the number of documents it needed to verify and stopped taking applications online, routing people instead to a hotline.
In other places, confusion reigned: Fulton County, Ga., which includes part of Atlanta, received thousands of applications from people who needed to apply to the city of Atlanta for aid. The city of Houston and surrounding Harris County in Texas, merged their programs to eliminate confusion, a move that ultimately made the program one of the nation’s exemplars.
Overall just 36 out of more than 400 states, counties and cities reporting data to the Treasury Department were able to spend half of the money allotted them by the end of June. Another 49 hadn’t spent any funds at all. That included New York state – recipient of $801 million in first-round funds – plus huge metropolitan governments, according to an analysis of Treasury data by The Post.
Advocates and legal aid groups say the program has failed tenants who reasonably expected aid to arrive in time.
“What I am seeing now is an anxiety that I haven’t seen in 20 years of practice, and it continues to grow and compound,” said Jack Newton, director of public services at the nonprofit Bronx Legal Services, in New York City. “The unknowingness about what is going to happen – it really has people frightened, losing sleep, calling our hotline for updates.”
White House and Treasury officials say they are continuing to press states and localities to improve their programs, while giving them the flexibility to design them as they choose. The pace of spending has increased dramatically, with $1.5 billion going to households in the month of June, more than all previous months combined.
“When the Administration arrived, we knew that this would be an enormous challenge and that the systems were not in place at the state and local level to deliver assistance at this unprecedented scale,” said Treasury spokeswoman Elizabeth Bourgeois, in a statement.
Once the ban ends, housing experts say areas of the country with hot housing markets and in-demand apartments may be most likely to see a surge in evictions starting in August.
“I am sure there will be a significant pickup of evictions because the number of people who are behind is about double what you would see in a normal economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.
The good news, Zandi said, is that the estimated amount of unpaid rent in America had fallen from $44.1 billion in December to $27.5 billion in June.
But he attributed much of the progress to one-time stimulus programs such as the cash payments that helped people pay rent. Moody’s data shows there are still well over 6 million renters behind and massive disparities between the need of renters and the aid they’ve received.
Experts say they expect to see pockets of America where a lack of funding and expiring renter protections lead to a surge in evictions.
“I’m anticipating that there will be mass confusion about who can be evicted, how they can be evicted, for what reasons and when,” said Anne Kat Alexander of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “There’s already a lot of confusion out there about exactly who is covered by the CDC moratorium and what the CDC moratorium protects from happening to you.”
Timothy Johnson, a 59-year-old with a chronic hip problem and two young daughters, says his landlord is waiting on $11,000 in unpaid rent for his rent-controlled Bronx apartment. He receives disability payments, and his wife had a job as a department store clerk, but he said it has not been enough to cover the rent.
He said he avoids thinking about what would happen if New York state can’t ultimately provide him and his wife with funds to make up their thousands of dollars in unpaid rent.
“If that happens I’m going to trust in God, because he’s going to make a way,” he said. “He’s always made a way. That’s when your faith kicks in.”
New York has been one of the slowest states to start its aid program. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, said Tuesday that the state finally began making payments in July and that the state would relax documentation requirements, streamline the application process and convene staffers from other state agencies to process applications.
The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance issued a statement from spokesman Anthony Farmer saying the program “has already received more than 100,000 applications and upwards of 7,000 calls a day are being handled with virtually no wait time.”
For now, New York state residents can take solace in the fact that a state ban on evictions remains in effect until the end of August. In addition to New York, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington have some level of protections beyond July.
Some counties and cities have protections, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency also announced Wednesday that properties backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac will give tenants at least 30 days before requiring them to vacate their units. Biden on Thursday also asked the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs to extend their moratoriums through the end of September.
“The places that I think we will be impacted the most will be where they enforced the moratorium well but didn’t get rental assistance out quickly,” said Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist of Redfin, the housing company. “It seems like all the money is out there and exists but the issue is getting it to people who are at risk.”
Some advocates and elected Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, called for the Biden administration to extend the federal moratorium.
But the ban, put in place nearly 11 months ago by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent evictions from contributing to coronavirus infections, has come under withering assault from landlords and federal judges.
The Supreme Court in June allowed the moratorium to stay in place for another month. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote at the time that any further extensions would require “clear and specific congressional authorization” through new legislation.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement Thursday saying that the administration would support an extension of the moratorium but that “the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available,” and that the White House was calling on Congress to pass a new ban for it to hold up in court. Congressional Democrats launched a last-minute effort to extend the ban Thursday, but Hill aides said they don’t expect it to succeed.
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The ban’s expiration has put the spotlight on government efforts to get aid programs up and running.
Treasury officials say the first $25 billion in funds was provided to grantees in February, but unlike federally administered pandemic responses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Congress designed the Emergency Rental Assistance program to allow governors, state legislatures, mayors and county councils to create and administer their own programs.
That has turned out to be a daunting and confusing task. Some states and counties opened application portals only to see them overwhelmed. Technical glitches dogged other systems.
Under Gov. Greg Abbott, R, Texas has found success, having put $610 million in the hands of renters – more than half of its first round of funding – by Thursday. But that came after its program stumbled out of the gate, requiring the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs to switch software systems and hire additional contractors to right the ship.
Bobby Wilkinson, the agency’s executive director, said his team found success by encouraging landlords to participate in the program. About 85 percent of funds have gone directly to landlords.
“I just want landlords to participate from the get-go. My message has been, ‘Talk to your tenants. Tenants, talk to your landlords. The way to make yourself whole is to participate in our program,'” Wilkinson said.
The Biden White House and Secretary Janet Yellen’s Treasury Department have been trying to raise awareness about funds. Guidance from February and May was widely praised by housing advocates for helping streamline application processes.
The administration also announced other initiatives in June and convened two eviction-prevention meetings, urging an all-hands-on-deck effort since the problem could not be solved by the federal government alone. On Wednesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched an online tool to further help renters and landlords find assistance.
“We have been listening and responding in real time – and will continue to closely examine any doable suggestions for new policy or guidance,” said Gene Sperling, who is overseeing White House stimulus efforts. “With some states and localities showing they can get significant funds out efficiently and effectively, those who are not ramping up their programs faster in light of the end of the eviction moratorium have no excuse nor any place to hide.”