Advocacy Tips for Improving Emergency Rental Assistance Programs

By Jessi Russell

Last December’s COVID relief package included $25 billion for Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs that reduce rental debts and prevent evictions. The American Rescue Plan of 2021 added another $21 billion. Despite this historic amount of funding, ERA programs can still fail to set all cost-burdened renters up for a successful recovery if programs don’t eliminate administrative barriers.

The Treasury Department recently published guidance that calls on ERA administrators to reevaluate their programs. This new guidance—which recognizes the need to deliver assistance directly to renters, eliminate burdensome documentation requirements, and track the program’s performance—signals an opportunity for advocates to influence how programs in their jurisdiction adapt to the stronger requirements.

Nationwide estimates of unpaid rent range from $8 billion to $53 billion. Among renters who were behind on their rent in April 2021, roughly 30 percent anticipated being evicted from their homes in the next two months—despite the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which has failed to protect all renters because of loopholes that, for instance, allow landlords to refuse to renew leases. Advocates in the #CancelRent movement have identified similar shortcomings in local ERA programs. By statute, households can receive assistance under ERA if they meet all these conditions

  1. one or more individuals qualified for unemployment benefits or experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardship directly or indirectly due to the pandemic,
  2. the household can demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability, and
  3. the household's income is at or below 80 percent of their area median income (AMI).

The statute requires programs to prioritize households with incomes below 50 percent of AMI or with members who’ve been unemployed for 90+ days. However, neither the statute nor guidance from the Treasury Department have addressed how programs might implement policies or procedures to prioritize a certain population—just that administrators must publicly report these strategies by July 15, 2021.

In other words, advocates for housing justice have an opportunity right now to influence how their local ERA programs meet the prioritization requirements. Our joint report with the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) offers guidance for prioritizing renters from the initial stages of program design to selecting which applicants receive assistance. Though written for program administrators, the report doubles as a tool for advocates to hold rent relief program administrators accountable and engage them in deeper conversations about equitable, anti-racist program design that centers the Black, Latinx, and immigrant parents who landlords disproportionately target for eviction. NLIHC has also launched an ERA Resource Hub to facilitate resource-sharing among administrators—a tool that advocates can leverage to affect change locally.

Advocates should get answers to these three questions before reaching out to ERA administrators.

1. Who’s running my local ERA program?

Early in the pandemic, ERA programs were largely decentralized. No single state or local agency distributed ERA, and jurisdictions paid for these programs using leftover CARES Act funds, general revenue, and private donations. Furthermore, the people tasked with administering ERA often didn’t have experience designing or implementing a large-scale benefits program—let alone one this challenging. Several of these early programs shut down because demand far exceeded the supply of assistance. 

Since the December relief package, state and local governments have become more involved, with ERA programs now operating in all 50 states. Most of these programs have centralized ERA administration in small ways like, for instance, establishing a single online application portal for residents in the state, while others have shifted control completely to government agencies. NLIHC’s database of programs includes information on the entity administering ERA, with contact information for relevant staff usually available on the entity’s website. 

2. How much money did my local ERA program receive, and can it meet the needs of all cost-burdened renters in my jurisdiction?

A lack of available data makes it challenging for advocates to calculate exactly how much rent a single household in their community owes. The most recent nationwide estimates range from $1,740 to $5,600 per household, but even these numbers overlook some renters, including those who charged rent to a credit card. Because the formula used to allocate ERA funds accounted for the general population rather than renters, specifically, localities with more renter households likely received insufficient funding to meet the needs of everybody in debt. This deficit forces administrators to operate from a scarcity mindset. Conversely, states and localities that received enough federal funding for all cost-burdened renters can prioritize outreach and supportive services that maximize the number of renters who complete their applications.

Estimates of allocations by state can be found here for the first $25 billion and here for the $21 billion passed in the ARP. 

3. Who in my community is at the greatest risk of eviction, homelessness, or housing insecurity? Are my local ERA program administrators aware of these disparities and connected to the impacted communities?

Unless existing state law restricts it, programs can add criteria to prioritize applicants beyond area median income (AMI) or unemployment status. This option is important because the single greatest predictor of eviction is the presence of a child in the home, not income. Long-standing racist housing and land-use policies at the federal, state, and local levels continue to undermine the stability of renter households headed by Black and Latinx women. Advocates can leverage local data on eviction filings and other key housing-related risk factors, as well as personal accounts of unjust landlord practices, to ensure money flows to the ZIP codes where renters are disproportionately subject to predatory lending, over-policing, and eviction. It is necessary for ERA programs to partner with trusted nonprofits and tenant unions in those communities.

Only by designing programs that prioritize people who’ve been historically discriminated against, excluded, or displaced can administrators ensure an equitable recovery that begins to repair the community’s trust in government.