Prioritization in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs: A Framework of Strategies, Policies, and Procedures to Better Serve Priority Populations

By Jessi Russell and Diana Orozco of CLASP, and Rebecca Yae and Emma Foley of NLIHC 

The COVID-19 relief package signed into law in December 2020 included $25 billion in assistance for tenants with low incomes and established the Emergency Rental Assistance program (ERA) administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The “American Rescue Plan Act,” enacted in March 2021, provides an additional $21.55 billion for a grand total of $46.55 billion. The available funding is unprecedented in scale, but program administrators still may find that demand for assistance outstrips the supply. States, localities, territories, and tribal entities responsible for distributing much-needed emergency rental assistance to tenants and their landlords must, therefore, do so equitably and with significant consideration for those most impacted by COVID-19 and at greatest risk of housing instability--in particular, Black and Latinx renters.

By statute, households are eligible under the Treasury ERA Program if (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) household income is at or below 80% of their area median income (AMI).

The statute adds that administering entities must prioritize household with incomes below 50% of AMI or with members who have been unemployed for 90 days or more. Administrators can incorporate additional criteria to prioritize applicants. However, neither the statute nor guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury have addressed how programs might implement strategies, policies, or procedures to prioritize a certain population. 

Of the 500+ emergency rental assistance programs created prior to the December package and in rapid response to COVID-19, a previous NLIHC study found that fewer than 70 were designed to prioritize certain applicants beyond the general eligibility requirements. Upon follow up with some of these administrators, we found that programs varied in how and at which stages they employed prioritization strategies.

Although prioritization is commonly confined to the application selection phase, it can and should happen during every stage of emergency rental assistance administration with careful planning and adequate investment of time and resources. Further, clarifying a program’s goal(s) and specifying who makes up the priority population(s) can help to focus resources and administrative capacity, while also reducing administrative burden for applicants. 

This co-authored report introduces a framework for how emergency rental assistance programs can incorporate strategies, policies, and procedures that give priority to renters most impacted by COVID-19 and at greatest risk of housing instability at every stage of program administration, including:

  1. Determining the priority population(s);
  2. Program budgeting & setting benchmarks;
  3. Conducting robust tenant & landlord outreach;
  4. Providing ample intake support for tenants & landlords;
  5. Selecting applicants and providing services; and;
  6. Conducting ongoing performance evaluations.