What Can We Learn from New State and Local Assistance Programs for Renters Affected by COVID-19?

As part of the Urban Institute’s exploration of policies to protect people and places from the impacts of COVID-19, researchers are examining how state and local governments can respond to the tremendous rental housing challenges presented by COVID-19. In this Housing Matters blog series, we present evidence-based ideas for how state and local leaders can stabilize housing for renters affected by the pandemic and job loss. You can find the framing post with links to each post in the series here.

With each passing week, the COVID-19 pandemic is making it harder for an ever-growing share of families to afford basic needs. State and local governments were quick to recognize that job and income losses have hit low-income renters hard, and many are already racing to stabilize housing by providing direct rental assistance through new programs or by retooling existing ones.

But we know little about rental assistance programs designed to respond to COVID-19, including how they are structured, who they serve, how they could inform new programs in other states and localities, and how they could shape future federal relief.

To help fill these knowledge gaps, we examined 43 state and local rental assistance programs—from big cities to small towns and in states with leadership that spans the political spectrum—that were created or repurposed to help keep renters stably housed through the pandemic.

Where the state and local rental assistance data come from

We identified 43 state and local rental assistance programs from several online resources, including the National League of Cities’ Local Action Tracker, the National Conference of State Legislatures’ State Action on Coronavirus tracker, the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s state and local rental assistance resource page, and (of course) social media. State or local government agencies lead most of the programs, but philanthropic and charitable organizations launched several. We include these private-sector initiatives in our analysis for the lessons they may offer public-sector programs.

We reviewed publicly available information on these programs to understand who administers them, how they’re funded, who they serve, and what their features are. Finally, we interviewed the local leaders running three relief efforts that represent a mix of state and local and public- and private-led programs: Atlanta’s Star-C Eviction Relief Fund; Florida’s State Housing Initiatives Partnership (PDF) (SHIP); and Los Angeles County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Key trends in state and local rent relief programs

Who is paying for new rental assistance programs?

State and local governments are using general revenue, existing federal resources, and state and local housing trust funds to pay for their programs. Some, such as San Antonio’s $25 million COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program, are leveraging funds across these sources. Others are redirecting funds to prioritize rent assistance, such as Nevada’s emergency rent assistance program, which is being funded through a $2 million settlement with Wells Fargo.

Local philanthropic and charitable organizations are also funding new rental assistance programs. In Louisville, Kentucky, the COVID-19 Response Fund received large donations from several family foundations, local philanthropists, and large businesses. Similarly, in Whitefish, Montana, their emergency rental fund is a partnership between the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, the Whitefish Housing Authority, and the Whitefish Community Foundation.

Although none of the programs have yet received resources through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, several plan to use CARES Act funding when it becomes available. These programs are building capacity and delivering emergency assistance now, even as they await additional federal resources.

Who do new rental assistance programs serve?

Most new rental assistance programs serve tenants directly, though a few programs (like one proposed in New York State) provide relief to landlords.

Many of the programs are extensions or expansions of existing programs, and their eligibility criteria are similar to original program requirements, with maximum income caps, loss-of-income requirements, and residency requirements. Some programs added requirements that loss of income be directly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most programs do not specify whether their services are restricted to households not receiving any type of assistance (like New Story in Atlanta, which provides prevention resources for tenants who aren’t covered by federal eviction moratoria or are ineligible for other government assistance programs) or are targeted at households already receiving some assistance (like a philanthropically funded program in Orange County, California, that is serving tenants who received rapid rehousing, time-limited housing assistance to help people exit homelessness quickly, and may be at risk of returning to homelessness).

What are some of the important features and limitations of rental assistance programs?

Many programs include a rent cap (typically between $500 and $1,500 per month). For example, Star-C pays up to 40 percent of rent, and Los Angeles County’s emergency rental assistance program will cap at $1,000 dollars per month.

Some programs also offer flexibility for other expenses, including back rent, security deposits, utilities, and legal aid. Still others are providing flexible cash assistance. For example, Lift to Rise in Coachella Valley, California, provides cash assistance to households to help them pay rent, buy food, or provide for their household in any other way.

But emergency rent relief comes with time constraints—generally one to three months. Some programs align the duration of their assistance with federal or state disaster declarations, though most are constrained by the number of households they can serve and can no longer offer assistance because they’ve expended available resources.

Lessons learned for local, state, and federal policymakers

Our research illustrates the tremendous demand for existing rental assistance and the need for significant federal investment beyond the CARES Act. But it also highlights widespread, innovative efforts that state and local governments and local partners are nimbly undertaking to help renters until more federal funding is available. Based on these examples, we offer four lessons for local, state, and federal policymakers working to provide further relief to renters during COVID-19.

  1. Leverage existing programs with adaptive capacity

In responding the current crisis, the most successful state and local leaders have moved quickly and tapped existing programs with the greatest capacity to adapt and respond to urgency. For example, Florida’s SHIP lets local partners tailor spending to meet local needs. According to Robert Dearduff, the program’s administrator, “We have 120 local governments across the state with existing infrastructure to get money out quickly. These local SHIP offices are in touch with their communities needs and are used to dispersing information and reaching those target populations that qualify.”

Similarly, Los Angeles County is “building off the systems we already have,” according to Linda Jenkins, the assistant director for the County’s Community and Economic Development Division. Retooling existing programs for emergency response requires “getting everyone on the same page” and coordinating across agencies. To help with intake, for example, the county’s housing agencies will work with 211LA to do an initial screening of eligibility requirements, which will help the housing agencies deliver rental assistance quickly “without bringing down their phone lines.”

In some cases, like in Atlanta, the adaptive capacity lies outside government. The nonprofit organization Star-C has been working with landlords since 2008 to stabilize housing for families who lived in neighborhoods with high rates of student turnover. With its COVID-19 Eviction Relief Fund, Star-C is expanding to other private landlords with properties in neighborhoods with high-need schools and high levels of job loss. “We are getting even more landlords to sign up. It really has been adaptive, we have been reaching out to new folks who don’t have a relationship to Star-C, so we are getting out to serve the community that we hadn’t been able to serve before,” says Audrea Rease, executive director of Star-C.

  1. Maximize flexibility

In order to move money quickly, public agencies must find ways to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and increase flexibility for existing programs. In many cases, this will require help from higher levels of government. In Florida, the state housing finance agency acted quickly to streamline approvals and increase flexibility for its local grantees. “We have approved around 50 amendments in the last 30 days, and we have been able to turn those around fairly quickly and have the locals seamlessly move from their traditional activities to emergency assistance. So, having a program that is flexible to adapt to these changing scenarios is key,” says Dearduff of Florida SHIP.

Other programs are adding flexibility in the duration and use of assistance. Washington, DC’s tenant-based rental assistance program pays eligible households (including low-income individuals, families with children, seniors and people with disability) based on their income and available resources. Louisville’s COVID-19 Response Fund allows the assistance provided to households to be used for rental assistance, child care assistance, transportation aid, food access, utility assistance, pharmaceutical needs, and other support to help households remain stable.

  1. Focus on populations with the greatest unmet need

State and local leaders must make difficult decisions about where to target scarce resources. Several leaders we spoke to pointed to the tension between prioritizing relief for middle-income renters who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 but who would not usually qualify for housing subsidies and targeting lower-income households who have persistent challenges paying rent, which the pandemic has exacerbated. According to Jenkins, in Los Angeles County, “There are so many needs it is hard to say one is more important than others. It is all about where people are and how they are being affected.”

Several of the programs we examined, such as Atlanta’s Star-C, require applicants to demonstrate they have a plan to restore income and ability to pay after emergency orders are lifted. These programs focus on emergency relief and may preclude those with the greatest ongoing needs from accessing resources. However, these restrictions are driven by limited resources and the urgency of the moment. “The need is great. Most people in the buildings we serve live paycheck to paycheck,” says Rease at Star-C, adding “if we had more resources, we’d work with those who simply had no ability to pay.”

Across programs, we observed several noticeable gaps in who is being served. Many exclude people in unsheltered locations, people who already receive housing assistance, people with no income, and undocumented immigrants. Yet other programs are explicitly trying to reach their most vulnerable populations, such as the City of New Orleans’s COVID-19 rental assistance program, which is prioritizing “families with children, re-entering citizens and lower income earning households” and is allowing for alternative documentation “for individuals whose income was based on cash compensation.”

Interestingly, several local leaders we spoke with pointed to the need to serve low-income renters who live in single-family homes and the “mom and pop” landlords who tend to own them. Tenants in larger buildings may be easier to reach, and owners of these building may be better able to weather delayed or missed rental payments—at least in the short term. According to Rease at Star-C, “We have a lot of calls from people who live in houses, and we only work with apartment communities. There are many people who need help paying their rent, and they live in a house.” In Los Angeles, planners are considering piloting a program that targets tenants living in “mom and pop” units to also provide assistance to those landlords and, hopefully, preserve some affordable, accessible units. Jenkins says, “A lot are small mom and pops, and they cannot collect unemployment if they don’t have a job outside of these properties. And, they don’t qualify for small business loans.”

Questions remain about some key elements of program targeting and racial equity. People of color are already overrepresented in homelessness and faced greater housing instability before the pandemic. Now people of color are being disproportionately affected by exposure to the coronavirus and job loss from stay-at-home orders. Programs must urgently work to close these gaps and ensure and promote racial equity through their assistance.

  1. Manage current resources while pushing for more money—much more

The greatest lesson we learned from this review is that vastly more resources are necessary to meet the needs of renters. Most of the state and local programs we examined were oversubscribed, and news reports reveal how quickly demand for rental assistance is outpacing resources across the country. Chicago designed its fund to assist 2,000 families but attracted 83,000 applicants in the first five days. Minneapolis designed its fund to help about 1,500 families, but applications have already soared to nearly 8,000. Delaware was forced to halt new applications for its rental assistance program after being overwhelmed with applications.

Although the CARES Act will provide some help, only $12 billion is earmarked for housing and community development programs, and one-quarter of this will be used to fill shortfalls in existing US Department of Housing and Urban Development programs caused by COVID-19. Estimates of the total need to cover housing costs for renters who’ve lost their jobs because of COVID-19 range from to $50 billion to $100 billion. On the ground, leaders administering programs see the need growing every day. According to Jenkins in Los Angeles: “We are seeing a bigger and bigger sense of urgency. Now the first day of May, the anxiety level is growing.”

State and local governments have cobbled together scarce resources during a time of unprecedented fiscal strain and uncertainty to provide rental assistance. But programs with closed enrollment because of exhausted resources and requests for assistance that outpace available resources suggest a growing consensus that more help is needed. The overwhelming demand for limited available rental assistance makes the case for significant federal investment, beyond CARES, to prevent widespread evictions and displacement.

Corianne Scally provided substantive contributions to this blog post; Jorge Morales-Burnett provided research assistance.

Photo by Shvaygert Ekaterina/Shutterstock