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Despite coronavirus relief dollars, many still waiting for rental aid to arrive



(NEW YORK) — Andreanecia Morris was huddled with six other housing advocates working to secure short-term rental housing for a 19-year-old who was 35 weeks pregnant when Morris thought to herself: “This is not a system.”

Morris is a housing advocate in New Orleans who has been working to connect those facing eviction and homelessness with the billions in rental assistance approved by Congress in several waves of coronavirus relief. As the federal moratorium on evictions expires at the end of March, experts say almost none of the funding from the last two rounds of relief has been disbursed.

Homelessness and housing insecurity have been on the rise since the coronavirus pandemic left millions unemployed and unable to make rent. Some 15 million Americans — nearly 1 in 5 American adults — report being behind on rent, according to a recent survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The wait for relief has left some renters desperate as the federal moratorium on evictions approaches.

Luckily, Morris was able to find a home for the pregnant teenager. But successfully securing money for rental and housing assistance through the system is largely a result of “dumb luck,” she said.

“Yes, great for her,” Morris said. “But I can’t speak with confidence that we didn’t miss somebody just like her.”

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed earlier this month, allocated more than $21 billion for renters’ assistance and carved out millions to address homelessness.

Yet at the time the bill was passed, experts say almost none of the $25 billion previously approved by Congress in December had yet made its way to renters and landlords most desperately in need.

A slow start for funding programs

One of the biggest challenges in getting funds in renters’ hands, experts say, has been standing up new programs at the state and local levels to review applications and disburse funds.

States and localities were caught flat-footed trying to distribute the first tranche of funding allocated over a year ago, according to Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban planning and director of the NYU Furman Center.

Few programs existed to distribute that level of federal housing before the pandemic, and those that were created have been stuck in a holding pattern as the Trump administration shifted the rules governing the programs — only to then have them reversed by the Biden administration.

Guidance changed in several key ways after Biden took office: Landlords were permitted to apply for aid on behalf of their tenants, timelines for applications were expedited, utilities could be covered by some programs and fewer identification documents were required.

“A lot of programs waited because they didn’t know, they couldn’t stand up these programs and then find out that that really isn’t allowable under these new rules,” Gould Ellen said. “It’s like the federal government changed the rules.”

Now, more than two months into the Biden Administration, Diane Yentel, the CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told ABC News that many programs “feel more confident” getting programs up and running.

Lengthy applications have proven difficult to navigate

Many needy renters have struggled to navigate the at-times complicated and extensive process of applying for federal rental assistance.

Morris said she’s worked with renters in New Orleans who have filled out applications that were over 70 pages long.

There have been many incomplete applications and delays in processing completed applications.

Vincent Reina, an associate professor and faculty director of the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, said programs he’s surveyed around the country have tweaked their applications and hired more staff to do community outreach and review paperwork.

Reina said with programs finding their footing, the December funding should start to go out the door as soon as this week — though challenges remain.

“While the speed per dollar might be more efficient, these are also more dollars and so we’ll probably see these programs giving out funds for some time,” Reina said. “There’s only so efficient you can get when you’re requiring people to submit documents.”

Renters wait for funding as the end of the eviction moratorium approaches

While December funding is just beginning to trickle out, renters are staring down the impending end of the federal moratorium on evictions at the end of the month.

Nearly 2,300 organizations wrote to the Biden administration urging it to extend the moratorium in order to give tenants more time to access congressional relief.

Progressive Democrats have responded by calling on Congress to erase all rental and mortgage debt amassed during the pandemic. But those measures are unlikely to gain much traction.

Experts are hopeful that the challenges in establishing housing programs to address the needs of the pandemic will start larger conversations about housing policies moving forward.

“This current investment is so critical, so essential, and in many ways unprecedented,” Reina said. “But the reality is once these funds are spent, we still need to think on a structural level on how we engage with housing. Our housing affordability crisis doesn’t go away once we dole out all of this assistance to households.”

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