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How effective are pandemic relief programs in housing and rental assistance in reaching underserved communities? 

On Tuesday, October 5, 2021, we co-hosted a virtual roundtable with the National Academy of Public Administration. A panel of experts examined the impact of housing and rental assistance relief programs on underserved communities. 

As the public health crisis continues, minority and low-income communities are at risk of losing their housing. Congress made $46 billion available through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help individuals with difficulties paying rent and utilities due to the pandemic - but states and local governments have struggled to get the money out. There were 2 batches of funding, known as ERA1 ($25 billion in January 2021) and ERA2 ($21 billion in March 2021). Recent data (as of August 2021) showed that only 16% of the program’s funds have been distributed. In addition, a nationwide eviction moratorium lapsed in August 2021. 
 

Here's who spoke:

  • Joseph P. Mitchell, Director of Strategic Initiatives & International Programs at the National Academy of Public Administration
  • Dr. Peter Hepburn, The Eviction Lab and Assistant Professor, Rutgers University
  • Dr. Vincent Reina, The Housing Initiative @ UPenn and Associate Professor, UPenn
  • Kate Reynolds, Senior Policy Program Manager, Research to Action Lab at the Urban Institute
  • Susan Thomas, President of the Melville Charitable Trust

 

Here are the issues they raised:

The federal government doesn’t track eviction data, nor does it collect some data about rental relief 

The absence of national eviction data makes it difficult to distribute relief dollars to locations that need them the most. Dr. Peter Hepburn, who runs the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, said evictions are generally localized and the “hotspots” change rapidly. But Congress gave money to states based on their respective populations, not based on data showing who was at risk of being evicted. For example, Dr. Hepburn pointed out how states like Montana or Wyoming don’t have a lot of renters, but each state received $200 million in rental assistance (the minimum amount a state or local government could receive). Both states have spent less than 10% of their funds, and Hepburn noted that policymakers and the public may interpret that as a sign of poor program design rather than lack of demand. 

Another key piece of data missing from the program is demographic data. Kate Reynolds from the Urban Institute said that the Treasury Department (the agency responsible for monitoring the Emergency Rental Assistance program) is not capturing demographic data that would enable the public and researchers to know if underserved communities received rental relief. 

Best practices encouraged by the Treasury Department are helping get relief out faster

Susan Thomas from the Melville Charitable Trust gave the example of New Jersey, a state that had only spent 42% of its first batch of rental assistance funds in July 2021. The state worked to simplify the application process for renters and increase its outreach efforts to both landlords and tenants. By the end of August, the state had spent 87% of its funds. Thomas explained that local outreach in different languages has successfully increased renter participation in other areas.

Thomas also added that the Treasury Department is allowing states and local governments to send payments directly to renters, a solution when landlords refuse to participate in the process.  

Rental assistance programs could be an example of how government can innovate and collaborate with non-profits 

Dr. Vincent Reina, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the rental relief program is an example of how government can adjust programs on the fly, pointing out that the Treasury Department has updated guidance five times in less than a year to try to increase the pace of spending. Treasury also revised its guidance to allow renters to self-certify their income to simplify the application process. Dr. Reina said it’s a great opportunity to see what’s worked, urging policymakers to look at places like Philadelphia, a city that spent 100% of its first batch of rental relief finds.  

Dr. Reina also explained that it’s hard for local governments to implement federal programs like this, because they have to quickly staff up and build a system from scratch. Panelists agreed that this is an area where their respective organizations can help fill the gap. The Urban Institute, for example, offers free technical assistance to state, local, and city governments so that they can build an effective rental assistance program. 

Some practices may increase the rate of spending, but at the expense of potential improper payments

The PRAC issued a lessons learned report in September 2021 that showed how allowing applicants to self-certify their eligibility led to massive amounts of potentially improper payments in unemployment and small business relief programs. Self-certification removes barriers, but it also opens the door to individuals who will falsify their information without the checks in place and receive funds they are not entitled to. We also shared concerns that frequently updated guidance in other pandemic relief programs (like the Coronavirus Relief Fund) caused confusion, delayed spending, and may cause the money to be spent on ineligible uses.  

This co-sponsored activity does not constitute or imply an endorsement of NAPA or any of its products or services by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or the United States government.

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