Since the early days of the pandemic, experts have been warning of a looming wave of evictions. And last week it seemed that the rental crisis had finally arrived: Unwilling to extend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal eviction moratorium because of the high likelihood that it would be struck down by the Supreme Court, President Biden tossed the responsibility over to Congress. The House, however, adjourned before extending the eviction ban, and millions of renters who are behind on rent because of pandemic job losses and economic disruption were suddenly at risk of being kicked out of their homes in the near future.
Though the Biden administration relented and partially reinstated the moratorium after facing pushback over their decision to allow it to lapse, the reality is that this latest crisis should never have happened in the first place, even if the eviction ban hadn’t been extended another time. Through the coronavirus relief packages, Congress had already allocated over $45 billion for rental assistance in order to pay off tenants’ debts to landlords. And according to some estimates, which put the total national rent debt at just over $21 billion, that’s more than enough to go around. But despite receiving these funds in February, state and local governments have only distributed about $3 billion.
There’s a reason the emergency rental assistance has been so slow to reach the people who need it: There were no previously established programs in states to funnel this money through. In effect, state and local governments had to build a new social program from scratch in a matter of months, and the result has been that tens of billions of federal dollars have effectively been stuck in bureaucratic purgatory.
While some states have certainly fared better than others — as of June, South Carolina had only delivered funds to nine households, according to data from the Treasury Department, while Massachusetts reached roughly 28,000 — all states still have a lot of work to do. And now that the Biden administration has bought jurisdictions some time by extending the eviction moratorium until October in most of the country, both states and the federal government must do all that they can to get the rental assistance out the door as quickly as possible.
In order to do that, states must streamline their cumbersome application processes. In Massachusetts, for example, only 48 percent of applications for rental assistance have gotten approved, and the vast majority of applications were incomplete when originally submitted. That’s in part because the applications themselves are far too arduous, as is the case across the country: They are dozens of pages long, often written in legalese, and some states are requiring months’ worth of documentation to prove income or unemployment, in spite of federal guidelines that say applicants should be taken at their word. To avoid the back-and-forth between applicants and state agencies in getting all the necessary documentation, which can take weeks if not months, states should follow the advice of the Treasury Department and allow self-attestation to suffice.
States should also work with local and culturally competent nonprofit organizations in order to get the word out and reach underwater tenants. After all, states that have distributed funds at the local rather than statewide level have been able to get money to renters at a faster pace, and that’s in part because they have been able to activate local organizations that already have ties to the communities in need, as is the case in Houston, for example. (For its part, Massachusetts has only allocated funds to the City of Boston to distribute, while residents across the rest of the Commonwealth can only turn to state agencies.)
But these are all short-term fixes. The truth is that this rental crisis has exposed the need for a federalized eviction diversion program whose funding can be bolstered during economic disasters like the one brought on by the pandemic. The federal government aids homeowners, and there is no reason it shouldn’t have permanent programs in place for renters, too.
That won’t happen in the timeline allotted by the current extension of the eviction moratorium, which may end up being lifted sooner than October if the Supreme Court strikes it down — a distinct possibility. For now, the solution is for states to kick their programs into gear. The slow disbursement of the money is agonizing for tenants, unfair to landlords, and a burden on the economy. Congress allocated enough money for rental relief to avert an eviction wave by paying off people’s debts. Government inefficiency must not be what causes them to lose their homes.
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