Rental aid fell victim to politics, bureaucracy

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

Bartley, of Durham, North Carolina, turned to the state’s rental assistance program and was relieved in January that he had been awarded $8,100. But she says her landlord refused the money because she refused their request to modify the two-year lease to a shorter term. Under this program landlords were required to honor leases, among other conditions, in order to receive money.

He turned to another program launched by the state this month and was re-approved. Last week, she learned that her landlord had accepted nearly $20,000 for past rent and three months’ future payments, and agreed to dismiss her eviction lawsuit.

The news means he will not be forced from his home after the federal eviction moratorium ends on July 31. But waiting and uncertainty meant months of stress.

“It’s especially crazy when you have kids at school,” Bartley said. “It’s going pretty much on a whim. Okay, do I have to go somewhere every month?”

After Congress passed the comprehensive CARES Act in March 2020, millions have found themselves in situations similar to Bartley’s, despite bold promises by governors to help renters.

Nationwide, state leaders set aside at least $2.6 billion from the CARES Act’s coronavirus relief fund to support struggling renters, but a year later more than $425 million – or 16% – put it into tenants or their pockets. was not created. According to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press, the landlord.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Anne Kat Alexander, project manager at Princeton University’s Aviation Lab. “I knew there were problems, but it’s a huge amount that doesn’t have to be delivered on time.”

Like many state leaders, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina pledged last year to launch an ambitious program offering tens of millions of dollars in federal aid that would help cover unpaid rents.

But it took months to get up and running and stopped accepting applications just weeks after it finally opened in October due to extreme demand. The 20 nonprofits designated to distribute the money often lack the ability to withdraw it quickly.

Then, faced with the Republican-controlled legislature’s takeover of the CARES Act spending in January, the state had less money to award applicants. It ultimately cost $133 million of the promised $167 million – far less than what some housing advocates say is needed.

“We knew that money would not be enough. There were too many people who needed rental assistance,” said Pamela Atwood, director of housing policy at the North Carolina Housing Coalition. “There was very poor execution in launching that first program and It caused a lot of inefficiency.”

The federal government provided states with tens of billions of dollars in additional rental aid in 2021, but disbursement has also been delayed.

With the first round of funding 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, offered little to no aid.

Then, there was the often arduous application process and the year-end federal deadline for spending the money so late that some states had already pulled money to use on other expenses. Some landlords refused to participate in the sanctions, which meant they could not evict a tenant who was left behind again after aiding. Tenants sometimes shortchanged themselves by filing incomplete applications.

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

Georgia, West Virginia and Tennessee, which are all run by Republican governors, decided not to establish statewide rent-relief programs that year, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s database of rent-relief programs in 2020, while the average Despite the higher than the historical eviction rate . South Carolina allocated less than $14 per tenant-occupied home.

Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs tried to set up a rental assistance program in the fall of 2020 with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that’s when it became clear that a different, larger amount was coming from the U.S. Department of Defense in 2021. In the U.S. Treasury, the program stalled, said Susan Reif, housing unit director for the Georgia Legal Services Program and director of the Eviction Prevention Project.

Still, many states scrambled into action, creating massive programs to keep families in their homes – the safest places to shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. As of the summer of 2020, state and local government officials have launched about 530 rent assistance programs, with at least $4.3 billion set aside from a variety of sources.

Several states were praised for their well-run programmes. Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Washington state were among more than a dozen people reported to have disbursed every dollar of rental aid set aside from the Coronavirus Relief Fund as of March 31.

The Center for Public Integrity surveyed nearly 70 state and local agencies that the National Low Income Housing Coalition identified as setting aside coronavirus relief fund money to help with rents in 2020. COVID-19-related expenses, such as protective equipment, salaries of police officers, and small-business loans.

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

Diane Yantel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said last year’s funding challenges had set Congress off about $47 billion specifically for emergency rental assistance in December and March.

“Previous funds, most of them, were very flexible and had a broad set of acceptable uses,” of which eviction prevention was just one, said Yantel, whose group oversees rental assistance programs.

“Some states and cities channeled some of those funds to create eviction prevention and emergency rental assistance programs,” she said. “But many did not or many did not differentiate sufficiently.”

One of the biggest challenges was the failure of the states to spend their allocated funds.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency received $150 million to help renters, but returned nearly $96 million to the state treasury, leaving a hole in the state’s public safety budget. The Florida Housing Finance Corporation earmarked $250 million for rental assistance, but returned approximately $99 million to the state treasury to be spent on other programs. Eighty percent of Montana’s $50 million set aside for rent aid went back to the state. New York spent only $47.5 million of the $100 million promised in rental assistance.

New York’s 2020 rent-relief program was “set up to fail,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York. “It was a program that really punished people. It had a real intention of making sure that people don’t do better getting hurt by COVID, so if they were struggling before, they should struggle later.” .

Tenants had to prove they were a “rent burden” before the pandemic to qualify for rent relief in 2020, although that condition was eventually removed.

Hawaii spent about $71 million of the $100 million initially promised, although an analysis by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice found that the state spent the most per capita, $44.50. Still, the Legislature set a late December deadline for the spending, which meant the remaining $29 million had to be redirected to the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.

“With whatever extensions were implemented, it would be better to base the program’s termination on the CARES Act spending deadline, as the deadline was eventually extended,” said Gavin Thornton, the center’s executive director. “Had this been done, the program would have continued, and landlords and tenants would have been able to continue to access the funds that were certainly needed.”

Smaller towns and counties were also affected. In Marion County, Florida, none of the $1 million set aside for renters from the coronavirus relief fund ever made it to those who needed it because the United Way of Marion County, which managed the money, The U.S. did not have enough staff to process the applications, said Scott Quintal, the organization’s president. United Way was able to distribute rent assistance from another source, but money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund went back to the city for other COVID-19-related expenses.

“It’s appalling how poorly prepared some states were,” said Alexander of Eviction Lab. “Some places made it work and some places didn’t, indicating places that might not have been.”

In Athens, Georgia, Dylan Price said she received about $5,800 in rental assistance, but that didn’t stop her from losing her home. Eviction notices began pouring in in early 2020, after her pay and hours at a fast food restaurant were cut. He didn’t give up.

Price received rental assistance from Ark, a non-profit that manages funds from the CARES Act on behalf of the city of Athens, but the aid ended earlier this year. Price’s landlord has refused to renew his lease after it expires Wednesday.

She fears being in a homeless shelter once again with her 14-year-old son.

“It’s a very disturbing and uncomfortable situation,” Price said.


Casey reported from Boston, Kleiner from Washington, DC and Johnston reported from Brooke Park, Ohio. Casey can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter at @mcasey1. Kleiner can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @bysarahkleiner.


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


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Rental aid fell victim to politics, bureaucracy