Rental assistance fell victim to politics, bureaucracy

·6 min read

Before the pandemic hit, Jacqueline Bartley, a mother of two girls and a boy, had a comfortable life. Then the 41-year-old lost her job at American Airlines, quickly spent her savings and found herself months behind on the $1,350-a-month home she rented. Until then she had never missed a rent payment.

Bartley, of Durham, North Carolina, turned to the state’s rental assistance program and was relieved in January to be awarded $8,100. But she says her landlord refused the money after she rejected his request to amend her two-year lease to a shorter period. The program required landlords to honor leases, among other conditions, to get the money.

She turned to a second program launched this month by the state and again was approved. Last week, she learned her landlord had accepted nearly $20,000 for back rent and three months of future payments, and agreed to dismiss his eviction lawsuit.

The news means she won’t be forced from her home after the federal eviction moratorium ends July 31. But the waiting and uncertainty meant months of stress.

“It’s been crazy especially when you have children in school,” Bartley said. “It’s pretty much been going by a whim. OK, am I going to have somewhere to go each month?”

Millions have found themselves in situations similar to Bartley’s, facing possible eviction despite bold promises by governors to help renters after Congress passed the sweeping CARES Act in March 2020.

Nationwide, state leaders set aside at least $2.6 billion from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to prop up struggling renters, but a year later more than $425 million of that — or 16% — hadn’t made it into the pockets of tenants or their landlords, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Anne Kat Alexander, a project manager with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “I knew there were problems but that’s a huge amount of money not to be disbursed in a timely manner.”

Tens of billions of dollars more in rental assistance have been delivered to states from the federal government in 2021, but that has been slow to be disbursed, too.

With the first round of funds in 2020, bureaucracy was not the only problem. Politics also played a role, with a handful of states, many led by Republicans and with a history of weak tenant protections, offering little to no assistance.

Then, there was the often onerous application process and an end-of-the-year federal deadline for spending the money, extended so late that some states had already pulled funding to use on other expenses. Some landlords refused to participate over restrictions that meant they could not evict a tenant who fell behind again after the assistance.

Congress’ sweeping 2020 CARES Act sent billions of dollars to states and some local governments. But it didn’t mandate that any money be spent on rental assistance, leaving it to states to create their own programs and set the rules.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s database of rent relief programs in 2020, Georgia, West Virginia and Tennessee, all run by Republican governors, chose not to set up statewide programs in 2020, despite having higher than average historic eviction rates. South Carolina allocated less than $14 per renter-occupied household that year.

Still, many states did scramble into action, creating massive programs to keep families in their homes — the safest place to shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. By the summer of 2020, state and local government officials launched about 530 rental assistance programs, setting aside at least $4.3 billion from various sources.

Several states were praised for programs that ran well. Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Washington state were among more than a dozen that reported distributing every dollar of the rental assistance set aside from the Coronavirus Relief Fund by March 31.

The Center for Public Integrity surveyed about 70 state and local agencies that the National Low Income Housing Coalition identified as having set aside Coronavirus Relief Fund money for rent help in 2020. About $1 out of every $6 of that $2.6 billion wound up getting spent on other COVID-19-related expenses, such as protective equipment, police officers’ salaries and small-business loans.

Some states also spent millions of dollars setting up their programs, including North Carolina, which allocated around $20 million on administrative costs, and Hawaii, which spent $8 million. In the case of Hawaii, much of that went to help nonprofits scale up and rent space. The state also spent money on a software system in an effort to prevent fraud.

Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said last year’s funding challenges led Congress to earmark nearly $47 billion specifically for emergency rental assistance in December and March.

“Some states and cities carved out some of those funds for eviction prevention and to create emergency rental assistance programs,” said Yentel, whose group has been tracking the programs. “But many didn’t or many didn’t set aside enough.”

Among the biggest challenges was states’ failure to spend what they had allocated.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency received $150 million to help renters, but returned about $96 million to the state treasury, which plugged holes in the state’s public safety budget. The Florida Housing Finance Corporation earmarked $250 million but returned about $99 million to the state treasury to be spent on other programs. Eighty-three percent of Montana’s $50 million set aside for rental assistance went back to the state. New York ended up spending only $47.5 million of the $100 million promised for rental assistance.

In Athens, Georgia, Dylyn Price said she got about $5,800 in rental assistance but that ended earlier this year and she fears losing her home when her lease expires Wednesday.

She worries about living, once again, in a homeless shelter with her 14-year-old son.

“It’s a very nauseating and uncomfortable situation to be in,” Price said.

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Casey reported from Boston, Kleiner reported from Washington, D.C., and Johnston reported from Brook Park, Ohio. Casey can be reached at mcasey@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mcasey1. Kleiner can be reached at skleiner@publicintegrity.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bysarahkleiner.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington.

Sarah Kleiner And Taylor Johnston Of The Center For Public Integrity And Michael Casey Of , The Associated Press

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