Some renters have been waiting for rental assistance for months

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 06/27/2021, 6:48 PM
Edited: 06/27/2021, 6:57 PM

Written By: Emma Castleberry

(NATIONAL) Leon Mikano, a renter in Coralville, Iowa, applied for support from the Iowa Rent and Utility Assistance Program on April 7. More than two months later, he still hasn’t received a response.

“So far, my application has not yet been approved,” Mikano said through written responses that translated from French. “I am getting quite a few threats to cut off the water and electricity. I am very afraid, since I have a large family, to be evicted if I do not receive rental aid.”

Eight family members live in Mikano’s home. A native French speaker originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mikano used the language support available at the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa to help him complete the application.

On June 8, his property management company sent a notice that alerted him of his $2,805 in unpaid rent owed for April, May and June, along with a $100 late fee applied for each month of unpaid rent. 

“During the pandemic, I had lost my job since I tested positive — me and my wife — for covid-19,” Mikano said. “It was difficult for us to live, since we work three days a week and the number of hours was reduced.”

The delay in his application was surprising, Mikano said, because when he applied previously, he quickly received funds that covered three months of rent. 

“That (original) program was, by all accounts, pretty easy to apply for,” said Sara Barron, executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition. “The money got paid out very quickly. Unfortunately, that has not been what we’ve seen play out over the last couple of months.”

Many states, cities and counties created or expanded emergency rental assistance programs to distribute the billions of dollars in federal aid made available during the past year. In December, a covid-19 relief bill allocated $25 billion to rental assistance, and in March, the American Rescue Plan Act devoted about $21.6 billion more to the same purpose. The US Treasury Department gave those funds to states and local governments across the country.

A federal ban on evictions expires on July 31, and many state and local programs still have millions in federal dollars available to spend on rent assistance. But some renters, landlords and advocates say the aid has been slow or difficult to access.

More than half of the programs listed in a rent assistance database from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) don’t offer direct aid to renters, a requirement for programs that received the second round of Treasury funding.

Barron said that many tenants and landlords in Iowa who completed their applications back in March still haven’t seen any assistance or even received confirmation that the money is coming. 

Agency spokesperson Ashley Jared said the Iowa Finance Authority, which is distributing the aid, is speeding up application reviews, with the goal of getting through as many as possible before the eviction ban expires. But as of this week, the agency has a backlog of about 3,000 applications.

The state received about $195 million during the first round of Treasury funding for rent relief. So far, the agency has spent about $2.6 million of that on rent and utility assistance, providing aid to 934 households.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services received about $569.8 million to go toward city and county rent relief programs. According to the most recent data available from the agency, by the end of April, cities and counties that received the funds had spent less than $14 million on rent, utility assistance and other housing services. About $548.6 million was left to spend.

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, which is also overseeing funds from Pittsburgh’s allocation, received about $27.3 million in the first round of Treasury funding. So far, $7.3 million has gone to rent and utility assistance, and out of the nearly 9,600 applications the county has received, 1,433 households received assistance. 

Amie Downs, Allegheny County spokesperson, said more than 5,600 of the program’s applications are pending due to missing information.

What makes a rent assistance program effective?

NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel said the most effective programs limit the amount of documentation required and work with tenants when landlords refuse to participate.

Barron said that politics are part of the reason applications are taking so long to process in Iowa.

“I think that there is definitely a more political component to it,” she said. “The state of Iowa really sharply and without any notice reversed course and decided that instead (of paying past-due and future rent payments), they would only be paying past-due rent.”

Barron reached out to the Iowa Finance Authority to ask about the abrupt change. 

“I learned that the state was really prioritizing fraud prevention … and incentivizing a return to work,” she said. “The implicit message in that has been, ‘If we pay too much of your rent, you won’t go get a job.’”

When asked if the Iowa Finance Authority has delayed processing applications to encourage unemployed residents to return to work, Jared said: “Of course, we want Iowans to get back to work, so … we have resources for Iowans for development with job training and job posting boards to really encourage that link. But of course, we know that there’s Iowans in need of assistance. So we’re not taking away from that.”

Jared said the agency shifted to only paying past-due rent in the hopes of addressing those with the greatest need first. 

“We were slammed, for a lack of a better word, in those first 48 hours or so,” she said. “So it really came down to a matter of prioritizing those at most imminent risk of eviction.”

Prioritizing those with the greatest need

Of the 429 programs in the NLIHC rent assistance database, 82 prioritize applicants considered most at risk of eviction. That’s a requirement for the second round of Treasury funding, which most programs haven’t started spending yet.

Barron fears that practice is causing delays in processing applications in Iowa. 

“You need to wait until you have some applications before you can prioritize among them,” she said.

Bobby Outterson-Murphy, an Iowa City landlord who operates about 170 units, said that there was a lack of awareness about the aid since last year.

“In the pandemic, there didn’t seem to be clarity about what assistance was available for people,” Outterson-Murphy said. “Especially since so much of it required people to already be behind on payments, it felt really chaotic.” 

Promotion of rental assistance has been a challenge in Oklahoma, as well, said Eric Hallett, the statewide coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

“This round is doing better with getting that message out in the rural areas, especially because the rent assistance programs spent some of their (administrative) dollars on legal aid,” he said. “For rural areas, at least in Oklahoma, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is the No. 1 way that landlords find out about these programs.” 

Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma received funding to back eviction defense provided by 19 attorneys and 19 paralegals across the state. 

An overwhelming burden of proof

“There are still many program administrators that require really burdensome documentation from tenants,” Yentel said. “And so (those tenants don’t get) the assistance that they need to stay housed.”

The solution to this, she said, is allowing applicants to claim they meet certain application requirements, like income level, without having to provide documentation. About a third of the programs in the NLIHC database allow applicants to claim they have a covid-19 hardship without documentation.

Iowa’s rent assistance program doesn’t allow applicants to make these kinds of claims, a problem that became apparent when Barron was helping a renter fill out her application last month.

She said: “It asks at the beginning of the application, ‘How is your family financially impacted by covid? Did you lose hours? Did you lose your job? Were you unemployed for more than 90 days? Did you have significant costs?’ And so I was running through that checklist with her, and she said, ‘My husband died of covid.’ And he was the wage earner for their family. And that’s not even listed as an option for how people have been financially impacted by covid.”

Abigail Staudt, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said she’s run into this problem with some of her clients in Ohio, as well.

“(One of the) issues with some of the federal funding has been having to connect it to covid,” she said. “What’s not connected to that these days? I mean, even if we can’t draw a direct line to, ‘Oh, I was sick,’ or ‘Oh, this happened,’ our entire economy has been struggling.”

When landlords refuse assistance reported last year that some landlords won’t accept rent assistance. This problem is particularly concerning in Ohio, one of five states that allows landlords to begin the eviction process when rent is a day late.

Once a payment is late, a landlord can give their tenant three days to leave or face eviction proceedings. During those three days, landlords aren’t required to accept the late rent.

“In the period of time between when you’re late and the filing of the case and the hearing of the case, there is no chance in which a landlord must take the rent … and allow the tenant to stay,” Staudt said.

Staudt said this creates a “missing link” in the rental assistance program. 

Landlords refuse assistance for a number of reasons. Sometimes they’ve had a bad experience in the past and found it to be insufficient or slow. Often the relationship between the tenant and landlord has deteriorated so much that landlords want to sever ties.

The documentation needed to access rent assistance and be covered by the federal eviction ban can put additional strain on the tenant-landlord connection. And when landlords avoid filing evictions, their good intentions can make accessing some rent relief more difficult.

Outterson-Murphy, the landlord in Iowa City, said he worked to communicate with tenants who were struggling to pay rent, opting not to file evictions or late notices.

“I remember feeling a lot of anxiety, because for a lot of folks, there was the impression they couldn’t get assistance without a clear eviction letter or notice they were behind,” he said. “I had people requesting documentation because we were not sending out eviction notices.”

Yentel said one solution to this tension is for programs to provide direct-to-tenant assistance, which is a requirement outlined by the federal guidelines for this most recent round of funding from the American Rescue Plan. 

As of Monday, more than half of the programs in the NLIHC database, including Iowa’s rent assistance program, don’t allow direct-to-tenant aid, despite it being a clear requirement for funds from the US Department of the Treasury. 

Jared said the Iowa Finance Authority is discussing the possibility of a direct-to-tenant policy and holding on to applications where the landlord has refused aid.

When asked what would happen to those applications if the program decides not to provide direct-to-tenant assistance, Jared replied, “The only outcome would be to have to deny assistance.” 

A rush to deliver funding before the federal eviction moratorium expires

In Philadelphia, the city council created an eviction diversion program intended to delay the onslaught of evictions expected when the moratorium is lifted.

“Diversion was buying time,” Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym said. “As long as evictions can become an easy crutch, people will seek it. They’re not going to do something different when you could just evict somebody on a default.”

Gym and other councilmembers introduced the pilot program as part of a package of housing bills that were approved last year. A local court order that expires at the end of the month blocks landlords from filing an eviction unless they have applied for rental assistance and signed up for mediation.

“I don’t think our city is meeting the expiration of the federal moratorium with as much dread as municipalities that have not been able to find a landing place,” Gym said. “It’s one of the reasons why we think we should be talking about the diversion program as a commonsense law.”

Last year, Pennsylvania earmarked $150 million of its funding from the federal CARES Act relief package to be used for rent aid.

“You had to spend the money by November of 2020 or it would be directed to, of all places, the state prison system,” Gym said. 

Ultimately, about $96 million of the aid meant for rent relief in Pennsylvania went toward covering the payroll of the state corrections department. Philadelphia left none of its federal dollars unspent.

“The federal money was absolutely the bountiful thing that we needed to be able to push our way through,” Gym said. “But the money could only matter if we had the vision, the infrastructure, the accountability mechanism and the buy-in from the courts, the landlords and the renters … to be able to make it matter.”

Emma Castleberry is a writer and editor living in Asheville, North Carolina. See more of her work at editor Mollie Bryant contributed reporting on rental assistance spending. She can be reached at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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