Pandemic rental assistance program lags with billions of dollars unspent

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In a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Friday, Democrats and Republicans agreed that COVID-related rental assistance has been slow to get into the hands of tenants and landlords. But the agreement largely ended there, as elected officials and invited witnesses clashed over how to get the ball rolling on disbursement, with much of the money allocated unspent even though millions of tenants are facing eviction as pandemic protections expire.

“There’s no question that the funds aren’t reaching landlords and renters quickly enough,” Maxine Waters, a Democratic representative from California and the committee’s chair, said in her opening statement.

For renters, the slow pace of assistance payouts can mean a heightened chance of eviction, and for landlords, it can mean less income to keep a building maintained.

Rental assistance basics

Congress has authorized $46 billion in rental assistance since the start of the pandemic and arranged for those funds to be distributed locally. Tenants have had vastly different experiences applying for and receiving that assistance based on where they live. Some municipalities have distributed most of the money they were allocated, while others have only given out a small portion.

The New York Times reported that only about 40 percent of eligible tenants are receiving assistance or are temporarily protected from eviction by local regulations.

In general, the program is structured so that tenants need to apply, but landlords need to accept the funding and ultimately receive the disbursements directly.

Proposed fixes for rental assistance

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a witness at Friday’s hearing, said some small tweaks to the legislation would go a long way to making funding more accessible nationally.

Among her proposals, most of which were included in a Democratic bill to update the programs, were suggestions that municipalities and landlords should be doing more outreach to make sure tenants were aware of the assistance that was available. She also said local administrators should hire more employees to process assistance applications, and that tenants should be allowed to receive the funds directly, even if their landlords did not want to participate.

Another speed bump, she noted, was that some places required formal documentation of the pandemic’s impact on a tenant’s ability to pay, even though both the White House and Treasury Department said that self-attestation was acceptable. Yentel said more robust enforcement of those guidelines would give a boost to tenants.

What other resources are available?

If you’re struggling to make your rent payments, you should be in touch with your landlord to keep them in the loop and possibly work out a payment plan.

Then, you should get in touch with your state or local housing authority to see what’s involved in applying for rental assistance.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rental assistance finder is designed to help renters and landlords easily find and apply for payment assistance for rent, utilities and other expenses, the agency said in a statement.

If you do not have regular access to a computer, housing advocacy or legal aid groups in your area may be able to help you fill out your application, so it’s worth getting in touch with them, too.

Bottom line

The coronavirus pandemic affected renters much more than homeowners when it comes to housing stability. The federal government made billions of dollars available in rental assistance, but those funds have been slow to get into the hands of tenants in many areas. Most cities and states have resources to help if you’re behind on rent, and it’s important to do your research and get the aid you’re entitled to.

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Written by
Zach Wichter
Mortgage reporter
Zach Wichter is a mortgage reporter at Bankrate. He previously worked on the Business desk at The New York Times where he won a Loeb Award for breaking news, and covered aviation for The Points Guy.
Edited by
Senior mortgage editor