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Transcript for Impact of Housing and Rental Assistance Programs on Underserved Communities

Event: Impact of Housing and Rental Assistance Programs on Underserved Communities


Transcript text:

Lisa Reijula:    Welcome. I'm Lisa Reijula, associate director of outreach and engagement at the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or the PRAC. We were created by Congress in the CARES act to protect pandemic relief money from fraud, waste, and abuse, and also to let the public and policy makers know whether the money it was intended to help. We're happy to partner with the National Academy of Public Administration to raise awareness of how pandemic relief programs have impacted historically underserved communities. This is the second event in our joint series. And this time we're taking a look at the effectiveness of housing and rental assistance programs. Are these programs keeping families in their homes? Are they helping tenants to pay down rental debt? We have a fantastic group of panelists to help answer those questions today. They've each done extensive work in this area across academia, think tanks and nonprofits, and we're really grateful for their time today.
    I'm also excited that the PRAC is contributing to this conversation. Later on today, our website,, will feature new interactive maps that show the number of people that received rental assistance in each state and for how much. So we encourage you to head on over to later today to learn more. Thank you again to the National Academy of Public Administration for being a great partner, to our panelists. And let me turn it over now to Joe Mitchell, our moderator for today's event.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Thank you so much, Lisa. I'm Joe Mitchell. I lead strategic initiatives and international programs at the academy, and we're super excited to be partnering with the PRAC and to have such a distinguished panel with us today. So we have Peter Hepburn, who is with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University and assistant professor at Rutgers University. We have Vincent Reina, who is with the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also an associate professor, Kate Reynolds, senior policy program manager at the Urban Institute and Susan Thomas, who's president of the Melville Charitable Trust. So it's a great group of people, and I'm super excited to have the opportunity to speak with them today. I know I have a lot of questions for them, and I'm sure you all also will too. So please feel free to use the chat or the Q and A function at the bottom of your screen to send in your questions as you have them.
    And so we will get through as many of those as we can over the course of our conversation today. So with that, I wanted to turn to our panel and the first thing I'd like is for each of you all to just briefly introduce yourselves, kind of you and your work. And also if there's one thing that you really want our audience to take away from the conversation today, what would that be? And so, Susan, I'd like to start with you.

Susan Thomas:    Thank you, Joe. I'm Susan Thomas with the Melville Charitable Trust, and the trust is the largest foundation in the country that's solely dedicated to ending homelessness. We believe that homelessness is solvable and that it's preventable. And historically we funded systems change work, policy advocacy work, coalition building, seating collaborative efforts, really strengthening that crisis response system. And we discovered that we needed to do more. So we have expanded our grant making and really targeting the root causes of homelessness and those conditions that create the opportunity for someone to fall through the cracks. Currently, we are anchoring a public private partnership that we're launching with the Biden-Harris administration and the purpose of that partnership between the administration and philanthropy is to support communities in the equitable distribution of these unprecedented federal dollars going into community and making sure that those dollars go to the people who need it the most.
    One takeaway is that it's not too late. Things can still be put in place to make sure that the emergency rental assistance gets to the people who are most impacted in communities and that every one of you on this call has the ability to either influence and or make the necessary change to remove the barriers so that money can get to the people who need it the most. And I would just end by saying that this shouldn't be a race to get money out the door. It should be a race to stop evictions and there's a difference.

Joe Mitchell:    Wonderful. Well, I look forward you to continuing that conversation. Kate, what about you?

Kate Reynolds:    Thanks, Joe. So happy to be here today. My work at Urban focuses on affordable rental housing and housing instability, as well as community development. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've managed Urban's renters and rental market crisis working group, which brings together close to 80 national housing stakeholders on a biweekly basis from advocates to industry groups to government and Hill leaders. And we've been using data to identify how the pandemic is impacting the rental market and coming up with solutions together, policy solutions. Before that, I worked for several years at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. So I'm just thrilled to be part of the conversation today. I'm sure I'll change my answer about the most important thing for folks to take away because I always come away from these conversations feeling like I have a new perspective on viewing the problem, but right now I would say, and this echoes Susan's remarks, to remember that there's really a trade off sometimes between fast distribution of the ERA funds and equitable distribution.
    So really getting money to the most vulnerable renters and households can be more time consuming and challenging, so just being mindful that we're thinking about the right metrics when we're defining success for these programs.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Thank you. Super glad to have you on the panel today. Vincent, over to you.

Vincent Reina:    Sorry about that. Vincent Reina. I'm an associate professor at Penn and the faculty director of the Housing Initiative at Penn and we're a research initiative based out of the University of Pennsylvania, where we do a broad set of research around housing affordability, community and economic development. Recently we've been doing a lot of work related to COVID relief efforts. We've been partnering with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Furman Center to do national analysis of programs, what structure they take, who's getting dollars out the door. In 2020, we surveyed over 220 programs across the country. And in 2021, we've released a series of reports from surveys of programs across the country. Aside from that, we've been partnering with different municipalities to evaluate their rent relief programs. The state of California, the city of LA, city of Philadelphia, some other jurisdictions.
    And in doing that, partnered, had done extensive surveys of landlords and tenants to understand their experiences with these programs and the impact of these programs on a broad set of outcomes. And so some of that work we've put out there already, and we're going to be doing a lot of ongoing work in this area. So really excited is to be here today with this group. And I would say one key takeaway is something probably not new to anyone on this call here today, but just we already knew that there were vast challenges around housing affordability coming into this pandemic. We also knew there were a lot of challenges and inequities in the existing programs we had. The problem is that we often are dealing in an under-resourced environment. So we're not really fully forced to reconcile with that because there's always someone else in need who's going to apply and be offered those resources.
    And so in many ways, rent relief has really highlighted many of the structural challenges, inequities in our models, approaching housing for some time that we've never really had to grapple with because of that under-resourcing. And so what we're seeing and learning in here is really critical, not just for rent relief, but as the other panelists have already said, they're critical for our approaches going forward and really serve as a really important moment for us to learn from this and to not just make the case for resources, but make significant adjustments in how we deploy them going forward to allow for more equitable and efficient outcomes.

Joe Mitchell:    Wonderful. Well, thank you. Look forward to continuing our conversation here. And so Peter, over to you.

Peter Hepburn:    Thanks. So my name is Peter Hepburn. I'm an assistant professor at Rutgers University, New York, and also research fellow at the Eviction Lab. So for those of you who don't know us, the Eviction Lab is a research organization at Princeton University whose work is focused on understanding the prevalence, the causes and the consequences of eviction in America. And that's work that we were doing before March 2020. And then in response to the pandemic, we rolled out a number of new projects and new tools to try to understand what was happening in real time. So that included a COVID-19 policy scorecard that tracked state level changes to renter landlord law across the country through the first year of the pandemic, and then the eviction tracking system, which is a tool for monitoring eviction filings in real time in a set of jurisdictions around the country, a way for us to keep our kind of finger on the pulse of what's happening with eviction in jurisdictions everywhere in this country.
    I think in terms of big takeaways to keep in mind, I think it's important to remember that there was an eviction crisis in this country that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, we saw 3.7 million eviction cases filed across this country. Over the last 18 months or so we've seen those numbers dropped by more than 50%. There are a lot of parts of life where we'd like to get back to normal these days. This is one of those areas where we shouldn't be rushing to get back to normal and trying to fight for a new status quo with much lower rates of eviction is something well worth doing and I think something where the availability of emergency rental assistance moving forward could be a very important tool.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, thank you. So the structure of our conversation moving forward, I wanted to first talk a little bit with some of our panelists about kind of the current status and context, then talk about the issues and challenges and make sure we work in your questions and answers, and then conclude with our panelists' advice moving forward. So just to kind of start off with the current status, there are a lot of moving parts here. I know just yesterday, the Treasury Department issued new regulations outlining how it's going to, , redistribute money starting in March, I believe, to jurisdictions that are moving faster to get it to struggling renters and landlords. So it seems that there's a lot of moving parts. So Kate, I was wondering if you and Vincent could tell us a little bit about kind of where are we now with the eviction assistance programs and how did we get here?

Kate Reynolds:    Ah, thank you so much, Joe, and I will give a brief update on where things stand and I'm sure Vincent can fill in. There's a lot of moving parts as you've said. So just by way of backdrop, when we entered the crisis, renters across the country were facing high rent costs and financial burden already. This is mainly due to lagging rental supply and increases in demand for units. So against that backdrop came the initial pandemic induced shutdowns, the initial wave of unemployment and our data showed that that wave of unemployment really hit renter households especially hard because of the type of industries that were hit the hardest, so retail, service industry, construction, by way of example. In terms of where we are now, so there have been really three main policies that have stabilized renters during the crisis. The first is unemployment insurance, so the expanded protections, eviction protection policies and emergency rental assistance funding.
    In terms of expanded unemployment insurance, that expired on September 6th. Eviction prevention, so the most salient and comprehensive policies have been the federal eviction moratoria and these have been in place in different variations and covering different segments of renters for most of the crisis. As we all know, the most recent version of this was vacated by the Supreme Court at the end of August and several states and cities do still have moratoria in place that are covering renters. However, our research shows that even as of a few weeks ago, and this may have increased over that period of time, over 50% of renter households were still living in an area with no protections at all. So really where that leaves us is relying on emergency rental assistance, and this is the main tool that we have right now to stabilize households.
    And so states and localities around the country are attempting to expend about $47 billion in federal assistance, and the most recent report we have from treasury on spending through August shows that we've spent about 29% of the first tranche of that money called ERA I and about 15% of the allocated total. So we really have quite a long way to go to sort of get the money into the hands of the folks in need, and I'll turn it to Vincent, to fill in where I may have left off.

Vincent Reina:    Well, and to add on to that context that Kate provided, it's really critical to think of the timing of all these resources. I mean, we're almost two years into a pandemic now, well over a year and a half. The first round of funds approved in March 2020 and rolled out were the CARES Act funds, and those funds were important, but vastly insignificant given the level of need that was going on at that time. So the many municipalities who received CARES Act funds were essentially developing their first round of rent relief, knowing that the resources were fewer than what was being demanded and with a high level of uncertainty about whether money was coming going forward. So it essentially meant that jurisdictions were developing whole new application systems, whole new portals, whole new outreach structures in the midst of a pandemic, knowing that they would not be able to necessarily serve everyone and not knowing if all the systems they were putting in place essentially would need to be repeated.
    Another thing that's important to remember is during this time there was uncertainty about what kind of federal support there would be for jurisdictions for just public finance. So the ability to really kind of staff up was a challenge in of itself, and so uncertainty about budgets, uncertainty about future funding and resources that were absolutely critical, but also did not match the level of need resulted in a first round of rent relief that was very complicated. Not the least of which also is that during that time, the administration had actually offered very little guidance initially when the funds were released, which meant that basically initial programs were largely being designed by the jurisdictions who then often relied on lawyers to interpret the limited information that they have, which might lead to more conservative understandings of what can be done with the funds. That said, interestingly enough, over the course of 2020, a lot of jurisdictions actually adjusted their programs and were able to expend the funds that they had at hand.
    In December, there was additional rounds of funds approved, a much more significant chunk of money that was going to go towards rent relief. And that's the emergency rental assistance funds that we talked about in these kind of large numbers today. What's interesting about those funds is that there was initial guidance put out in early January, right before the end of the Trump administration, saying how those funds could be used. What's interesting is that guidance actually kind of often structurally contradicted a lot of what was known about what was good for effective program design and flow. And so a lot of jurisdictions essentially felt at that point that the guidance was going to change, which meant that you essentially can establish your program and what it could look like because you didn't really know what the guidance was going to say that program could actually be. The Biden administration came in and they released new guidance, and it was believed somewhere in around the February mark, that that guidance was essentially the guidance that was a good guiding point for going forward.
    But what that essentially means is we're a year into a pandemic. We have significant amount of resources that are finally approved and, in theory, able to flow, but now jurisdictions essentially have to establish whole new programs all over again. So some of them could be continuations of the 2020 program, but a lot of them might need to be adjusted, because the dollar amount is actually really important for program design. And so that leaves us in a scenario when we were surveying programs in April 2021, there were essentially only 140 programs that had been developed and deployed with ERA I funds. And so we know that a lot more programs have been developed and deployed since then, but we also know that Treasury has adjusted guidance to make what you can do with these funds more flexible, to allow funds to get out the door more quickly, to allow them to result in more kind of equitable distributions.
    So this is really important context because it's important caveats for saying that it wasn't kind of a clear process of these funds were here a year and a half ago and we knew how they could be used. It was essentially an evolving process. And what we've seen is governments needing to essentially evolve and innovate with their use of funds over time to get dollars out the door. Now that's not an excuse for not getting dollars out the door, but I think that's really critical context because it's a role that government hadn't normally played, particularly in this context, for some time, because, as we said before, there were insufficient resources for these housing programs and policies. So now we're seeing dollars get out of the door, but as we do this, I want to kind of push to kind of thinking of the metrics as we think about them. And I think this hits on some of the introduction comments, particularly that Kate and Susan said, which is that clearly the dollars expended is an important metric, we should care about that.
    We want people to access the resources that are needed. But one thing to keep in mind is that the speed of dollars getting out the door are also changing. So the increase of dollars getting out the door is also an important metric to think about. But then beyond that, who are those dollars actually getting to? Who are they serving? Who are they helping and what impacts are they having on households is really what we care about at as well. And so unfortunately we often focus just on that first part alone, where we really need to think across all three. Each three are really the critical proponents, and I think we're going to be speaking to them more throughout this panel today, but I just wanted to kind of lay that out for now.

Joe Mitchell:    Thanks, Vincent. That's great. So we'll definitely talk more. You've already started us down the conversation around kind of the major reasons that state and local governments have taken a long time to get rental assistance out. You also, Kate, you mentioned the nationwide moratorium on evictions. And so Peter, I wanted to get your sense of what impact that moratorium had and now that it's expired, what other protections remain for renters?

Peter Hepburn:    Yeah. I think that's clearly an important question, but I think exactly for some of the reasons that Kate was talking about, one that's hard to answer really clearly because there are a lot of moving parts here and being able to isolate the effects of the federal eviction moratorium in particular is going to be hard to do. With that being said, we can certainly say that we've seen really very steep declines in eviction filings over the course of the pandemic. From March 2020 onwards, there are very few months where we see even 50% of normal eviction filing levels. Now not all of that can be attributed to the federal eviction moratoria that have been in place either through the CARES Act or then through the CDC eviction moratorium. Stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits have, in many cases, helped to keep the rent paid and to keep the lights on.
    The most recent estimates about on poverty rates produced by Columbia University have found that poverty declined pretty significantly for basically all groups thanks to this massive infusion of cash over the last year and a half. And we also know that there were states and cities that had stronger eviction moratoria in place, stronger than what was available at the federal level that appeared to have been more protective. At this point with the CDC eviction moratorium having been struck down at the end of August by the Supreme Court, there are much more limited protections that are in place now. As of today, there are just four states, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, New Mexico, as well as the District of Columbia that have eviction moratoria still in place. Those policies just ended in California and Illinois, which significantly reduces the number of renters who have protections. There still are states and a number of cities that have partial protections in place that are tied to emergency rental assistance applications.
    So people who have applied for these funds in, for instance, Virginia or Connecticut, those cases shouldn't be proceeding right now, but the share of all renters who fall in one of those states is getting smaller. And so there are going to be more people who don't have protections at this point and for whom getting emergency rental existence sooner rather than later is of great importance.

Joe Mitchell:    Yeah, absolutely, now that there isn't, at least nationwide, that eviction moratorium. Vincent, you started talking about some of the reasons that it's taken state local government so long to get rental assistance out. And so I was wondering if you, and then also Kate could talk a little bit more about that and then Peter, I wanted to get from you once we hear that, how that has impacted evictions.

Vincent Reina:    Yeah. So I think there's a broad set of things going on. So our surveys of municipalities, as well as tenants and landlords appointed to a lot of different things that are driving this. First, local capacity and staff to actually develop and deploy these programs. And that's something that a lot of jurisdictions have had to staff up over time and the program actually allowing for that to happen and having the significant resources to do that is an important thing that exists now, but wasn't present throughout all of the process. Another kind of clear piece is there's important aspects of outreach and Kate can speak more to this with some of their work, but the places that have partnered with nonprofit organizations around outreach have been more effective at getting dollars out the door and particularly serving more marginalized households who traditionally are not served by programs like these, but that relies on local nonprofit capacity actually being there and being invested in and being able to be scaled in those ways, which is a really critical piece that isn't true everywhere.
    A lot of programs were designed to flow through owners. In the first round, you were allowed to offer direct tenant assistance in 2020. Originally in 2021, you always had to flow through the owner who then could say yes or no within a certain period of time at which point afterward you could offer it to tenants. And now you can go direct to tenant from the get go. The thing is that the process going through an owner means that there is more process involved in it, in and of itself, but it also means that owners could say no. And a lot of jurisdictions have seen a fair amount of challenges around owner participation, which means that creates a longer process. And in some jurisdictions where they actually aren't allowing direct tenant assistance, that means essentially that tenant cannot access the assistance that they qualify for, so that creates another barrier along the way.
    Within there, too, I would say though, there's kind of, again, kind of back to my earlier point though, this is playing into a lot of larger longstanding challenges around these approaches towards housing assistance, some of the existing tensions between landlord and tenant and relying on that to be a functioning relationship for people, for both parties to be able to access resources. And so I would say so in general, the goal with rent relief is to serve 100% of the households who apply. And none of our housing programs really did that before. We never had to reconcile with that reality. And the fact of the matter is, even if you get up to 80% of the funds kind of applications flowing through, that's 20% of households who apply who didn't access it, which is a significant challenge.
    And so we're just realizing that even with a perfectly or very a well designed program that could overcome all those of the other challenges I mentioned, really being able to serve everyone, considering the broad set of needs from homelessness to eviction to long term issues of housing affordability is a really tall order for a program like rent relief.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Kate, do you have other thoughts on that?

Kate Reynolds:    Yeah, I would just say maybe two things to sort of key off of what Vincent has mentioned already. So one is that the nature of the challenge is such that it's really imperative to get the funding out at a very large scale and really quickly, and this is really, I think, unprecedented. So I think one of the challenges is just remembering that the scale of the problem that we're trying to meet at this moment we haven't done before. So just to compare, during the great recession, as part of the ARRA act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there was a similar rental aid program. It was about $1.5 billion, so really much smaller than what we're talking about here, and the program was considered a success when it effectively spent most of that money in two years time. So I just wanted to like give some context for what the state and local organizations are trying to do, which is really a massive effort and it's needed, but it's unprecedented.
    The other thing I would say is that we have surveyed small rental housing owners, so owners that own four or fewer units, as well as their tenants. And we really noted that, as Vincent was alluding to, word is not out there about the availability of these resources. So even in June, we were noting that about half of the renters that live in these types of households and 40% of their owners didn't know that emergency rental assistance was available to them. And we do know that the renters living in these smaller rental properties are having a harder time paying their rent. So we do think that state local programs could really do a better job with outreach to reach some of these private mom and pop landlords and their tenants. But again, to Vincent's point, this isn't always easy because they don't always have organized groups that you can sort of easily go to and there may not be sort of existing channels that the state or city has worked with previously.

Joe Mitchell:    So a massive amount of resources, new programs, a complicated structure, but the bottom line is, as a result of all those things, we've had a slow pace of distributing funds. So, Peter, what is your sense of the impact that that has had and how important it will be moving forward to really get the funds out faster?

Peter Hepburn:    Yeah, sure. Actually, I want to just take a moment to talk a little bit about this question of why it's taking so long to get funds out in some places and not others. And this is tied in not to the way that these programs are necessarily operating, but the structure of how this money was distributed in the first place, which was based not on any sort of measures of apparent need or renter population or median rent. It was based on overall state population with a carve out for small states. And I think that makes sense in the context of the CARES Act, which is where this formula was originally devised, but when it was applied to emergency rental assistance, it means that you're giving a lot of money to states that have relatively few renters. So we talk about there being a slow pace of distribution in a place like Montana or Wyoming or Rhode Island.
    These are states that are very small, that have relatively small renter populations, and that between ERA I and ERA II, got $352 million, and it's simply more money than they were ever going to structurally be able to distribute. And so, in many cases, the estimates of rental debt that are being produced at this point actually line up pretty favorably with the amount of emergency rental assistance that has been distributed. So the best estimates out of USC at this point are that in Montana, there was something like 12 million in rental debt and the program has distributed 14 million in emergency rental assistance. It's true that that is less than 10% of the emergency rental assistance that was available, but if you've met the available need, isn't that also success and shouldn't we be considering that as an appropriate metric as well? So I think that accounts for some states. There are certainly programs that are doing a much better job of getting the money out. And there are large states that have a considerable amount of need where the money is not being distributed.
    And those should be a cause for considerable concern at this point. What we've seen in the eviction records is that the places that are getting a larger share of this rental assistance running out the door are seeing relatively lower eviction filing rates relative to normal. So the places that are pushing out 60, 70, 80% of ERA I are the places where we're seeing eviction filings that are more like 10, 20, 30% of historical average rather than 80, 90% of historical average. And I think that makes sense. If you've got a program that is proving that it is capable of getting this money out, that can reliably get rental assistance out to tenants and out to landlords, there's going to be a lot more landlord buy in for that sort of program. If you've built faith and trust in this program, that's going to help convince landlords that it's worth spending the time and energy to go through this program rather than immediately turning to the courts and turning to eviction as an alternative. Yeah.

Joe Mitchell:    So, in other words, things are not as bad as they may seem like they are.

Peter Hepburn:    I mean, they are bad in some places, certainly I don't want to undersell that, but the other thing is this is not money that is meant to disappear at the stroke of midnight at the end of this year. This is money that should be here until 2025, and we should be building programs that are capable of using this money moving forward.

Joe Mitchell:    Got it. Great. So, Susan, I wanted to turn to you. I mean, so, we have been talking about a lot of the challenges. So what are some of the potential interventions that can be helpful at this juncture?

Susan Thomas:    Yeah, just like Peter was saying in the areas where people have adjusted their processes to remove some of the barriers, those are the areas where you see a larger percentage of the rental assistance being deployed and lower levels of evictions. And so for instance, in New Jersey, New Jersey doubled their output between July and August. In July, they had 42% of their emergency rental assistance deployed. But by the end of August, they had 87% of their rental assistance deployed and that was due to allowing residents to self-certify their eligibility. So instead of gathering documents that may not be readily available to verify income or rental arrears, they were allowed to sign a self-attestation form, verifying that they were in arrears and verifying that their income declined as a result of COVID. They also ensured that applications were culturally and linguistically accessible, and so that removed many of the barriers for people and applicants that were having problems with completing application.
    One of the things that we've seen in many states is that there's a gap between the number of applications started. And then the number of applications that have been completed and payments are out the door, and a big part of that is people not being able to successfully complete their applications or their applications being returned. In instances like in Virginia, Virginia has distributed over 70% of their ERA funds and they've adopted things like specific proxies that can be applied for low income zip codes. So if someone is in a low income zip code with high poverty rates, then that serves as a proxy for eligibility, or if there's also categorical eligibility. So if someone is a SNAPS recipient, so they receive food stamps, then that category can be authorized as eligible category to apply for rental assistance. So those are things that really help streamline the process, remove the barriers. There have been other interventions that have been put into place, increasing outreach.
    Kate talked about the difficulty in getting into some communities and communities not even being aware. And so there are interventions that we have seen being employed where states and locales have partnered with small community based organizations, and it's your non-traditional organizations. It's not the big ones that receive all the funding, but the smaller ones who are in community, they know the community, they know who's in trouble, they know who's in need. And then they understand also that that there's trust that's already been built so that people who are hesitant in, in applying or thinking that it's not worth it, they have the trust of those people in the organizations to help them navigate through that process. There's also interventions around legal assistance.
    States have the ability to take 10% of their allocation and apply it towards administrative fees and administrative costs to supplement capacity, to build onsite legal assistance at the court, to provide legal counsel, to make sure that, I've seen examples in states, for instance, in a couple counties in Georgia, they have onsite court assistance where someone goes to eviction court and right there, there is legal assistance that's available to them. There is a place where they can apply for emergency rental assistance. And these ERA dollars can be used to set up these programs. And then also governors have amount of unrestricted dollars in their ARPA funds that they can use for, it's really at their discretion. Many governors have used this to understandably address budget deficits, but then also they have the ability to use those funds to set up these programs and to support building capacity.
    And then there's also interventions, what I call small P interventions, which is policies that can be put in place by local officials without really having to go through a legislative process or potentially just having to go through authorization at the court or authorization by a city council. And those are things like stopping evictions or barring evictions until someone has applied for rental assistance, preventing landlords from applying for an eviction until they have participated in the rental assistance process, or they can be things like universal self-attestation or allowing residents to apply for rent if the landlord has not been cooperative. So there's a lot of things that can happen at the local level with local decision making can really streamline this process, and we've seen that the places that have employed these measures are the places that are getting the dollars out the door.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So it sounds like there really are some very practical things that that jurisdictions can do and that they are doing, so hopefully the other jurisdictions will learn from those.

Susan Thomas:    Yes.

Joe Mitchell:    But I did want to look also or talk about kind of the rental relief, like what's actually happening in terms of both kind of who needs it from the tenant and landlord side, and then also who is actually getting, which households are actually receiving the assistance. So Kate and Vincent, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about what we know about who needs rental relief, both from the tenant side and the landlord side.

Kate Reynolds:    Yeah. So unfortunately there's not a national data set that tracks rental payments in the same way that we have a nationally representative data set for mortgage payments, for instance. So the best we can really do is piece together a comprehensive story, relying on surveys and some administrative data that we have. That being said, we do know that renters of color have significantly more need than their white counterparts. So we rely on the census household full survey, which has been tracking the impacts of the pandemic across multiple domains on a biweekly basis. And that shows that about 12% of white renters were not caught up on rent in the early September, but that compares to 23% of black renters, 21% of Asian renters and 20% of Latinx renters. So really there is much more need for households of color. And at Urban, as I mentioned, we've also been tracking the pandemic's impacts on smaller landlords. And we do find that rent collection for these smaller landlords has consistently been lower than what we see for larger multifamily owners.
    And this is really important because renters in small multifamily units tend to have lower incomes and be more heavily people of color again and rely on industries that sort of have been exposed to COVID-19 for their employment. So these are two groups that we're sort of watching closely and know have pretty great need at this moment.

Joe Mitchell:    And Vincent, did you have things to add to that?

Vincent Reina:    Yeah, no. I mean, Kate covered a lot of the ground wonderfully. I would just add a couple of kind of secondary points, which is, on the need side, one important part to consider here is that a lot of households have done all they can to pay for their rent. And for many, they still couldn't pay the full amount. And so our surveys of, at this point, well over 100,000 households across the sites we're looking at show the vast amount of other forms of debt that households have taken on in order to pay for rent. And this is formal debt, but there's also informal debt like borrowing from family members and things along those lines. And so as we think of rent relief, it clearly addresses issues of rent arrears.
    But we also, as we think of the long term implications here of eviction, of homelessness, of just financial and economic instability, there's a clear other piece here, which is that a lot of households were doing a lot of things to remain housed and still were accruing debt in the form of arrears in other forms of debt that are going to be something that people are grappling with for some time. And I would say, secondarily on the owner side, we've been surveying owners across our sites as well. And, to Kate's point, small multifamily owners are particularly being hit hard because every additional unit is as is a larger share of their portfolio. And what we're seeing is increased instances of deferred maintenance, increased property listings for sale. And this is implications both for the wellbeing of tenants and those properties now, but also for the long term viability and affordability of those units. So again, these kind of present these really important and critical long term challenges.
    One last finding I just want to pull out here, though, is one thing we found in a survey of owners across 10 sites, across 10 cities, is that owners in majority neighborhoods of color were more likely to be applying punitive practices around the rental properties, charging late fees, filing eviction notices, whereas owners in largely white communities were much more likely to be doing enforcing positive practices like reducing rents, forgiving late fees, things along those lines. And that's controlling for nonpayment of rents. And so we also have to consider the fact that there's kind of broad inequities being faced by the tenants just on the practices side as well.

Joe Mitchell:    Got it. Yeah. So there are definitely lots of issues both on the tenant side and the landlord side and both near term and longer term. Peter, we've already talked about that there's not really this national tracking database, but what do we know about households that have actually received assistance? And what kind of data are program administrators collecting, in particular in terms of race and ethnicity and gender?

Peter Hepburn: Yeah. So they're mandated to collect this information about the applicants to these programs and who receives this emergency rental assistance. So we will eventually have hopefully good quality data on receipt by race and ethnicity, by gender and by, if not household structure, then at least household income, which will be enormously important in understanding how this money was actually distributed. There are programs that are starting to make those reports publicly available, either through dashboards or just through, through websites that they maintain. I live in New York City and have been following the New York state program pretty closely. So if you go and look at their website, you'll find reports on the demographic composition of applicants, as well as the distribution of applicants by zip code. And both of those actually offer pretty encouraging signs, at least for the New York state program, where we see that the majority of applicants this program are women, that there is a very healthy representation of Latinx and black applicants for these programs.
    And then when we map out where, especially in New York City, where these applications are coming from relative to where we've seen eviction filings over the course of the pandemic, there's a very strong correspondence between those two data points. So there's some encouraging signs there that the word is getting out and that the sort of outreach that needs to be done to make sure that people are aware of these programs and are going through the, especially in New York, rather onerous and burdensome process of actually applying for these funds, that's being done in the communities that are being hardest hit. Now, I can't say that that's true everywhere, but that's why this having that sort of information is particularly important and helpful.

Joe Mitchell:    Right. So it sounds like it really is heavily dependent on where you are, but that's interesting to know more about what New York City is doing in terms of both the data and its programs. So I wanted to ask each of you, you're in this sector is how are your respective organizations helping in this area to get rental assistance out faster, to make people aware of these programs? So tell us a little bit more about the themes that your organizations are doing. Susan, I'd like to turn that over to you first to learn more about the Melville Trust.

Susan Thomas:    Sorry about that.

Joe Mitchell:    No worries.

Susan Thomas:    Sure. And there's one other thing I just wanted to make sure was noted is that the administration has been very responsive to changing, and I think Vincent mentioned the iterative nature of this process and how restrictive the guidelines were during CARES and ERA I and how those guidelines and virtually all of the red tape associated with getting these dollars out the door has been eliminated by Treasury. And so I just really wanted to highlight that and that it's very important for the local officials to understand and to try to align their programs with things like self-attestation, with using proxies and categorical eligibility to make the process easier for people. They've made changes to allow renters to get their dollars directly and then to use those dollars for moving costs. So there's been lots of concessions made. And so I just really feel it's important to highlight those concessions.
    So the things that we're doing, we've been working at the trust very closely with the administration and the administration identified 46 cities that were particularly at risk of evictions once the moratorium was lifted. And so we have reached out to funders in those 46 cities and our effort has been to really match philanthropy with the needs that are on the ground. There are also things that we have done for those 46 cities. We've reached out to right to the city and we've issued a grant to them for them to play a coordinating role across five networks of grassroots organizations across the country who have multiple affiliates deployed in various cities. And so they are coordinating those efforts to get boots on the ground, to provide that outreach into hard to serve and hard to reach neighborhoods where they are known and trusted. Another thing that we have done is that we are providing a grant to the National Center of State Courts. They are instituting a program where they'll provide facilitators to help courts set up onsite court assistance and right to counsel.
    And so we are supporting that effort as well. And then we're also working with an organization called Propel, who they provide an app for EBT users, SNAP recipients who use EBT cards, and so on that app, we're able to provide outreach and education about the rental assistance program. And we're currently looking into the ability to make direct cash payments through that EBT app. And so we're looking into the legalities of that, but that would greatly facilitate the ability to make direct payments very quickly and that's another kind of categorical eligibility example and make those payments directly to recipients.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So it sounds like a lot of really, really important work in terms of reaching people in need and also trying to facilitate actually getting the resources that they need. So wonderful. Kate, your group at the Urban Institute, tell us a little bit more about what you're doing.

Kate Reynolds:    Happy to. So we're using our data and analytics to really try to keep tabs on the issues on the ground and bring those to the forum, make sure that they're publicly known and known to policy makers. One example is our emergency rental assistance prioritization tool, which maps census tracks that have renter households most likely to face housing instability. So it would take too long to talk about all the things that we're doing in this space, but one important piece is that we have some generous support from the Schultz Family Foundation, and we're actually able to offer free technical assistance to state and local leaders across the country as they design and implement these emergency rental assistance programs and specifically in using data tools like the emergency rental assistance prioritization tool, to make sure that they're targeting outreach and or dissemination of funds to those households that are most at risk of eviction.
    And we also are sort of providing just insights from prior research that we've done in peer communities to try to inform program design. And then just lastly, of course, because we're Urban, we are continuing to, of course, conduct research to sort of understand how these programs are being implemented and what factors are sort of correlated with efficient and equitable distribution of funds.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So very, very important and interesting work. Vincent at the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, tell us a little bit more about what you all are doing.

Vincent Reina:    Yeah. I mean, I think similarly to what Susan and Kate said, we've been kind of doing some analysis to help inform some national conversations. Oops, sorry, my computer just cut out. I don't know if I actually cut out.

Joe Mitchell:    No worries. We can still hear you.

Vincent Reina:    All right. Perfect. Well, I'm still here then. So but aside from that, we've been kind of partnering with a bunch of municipalities to help them evaluate their program. And within this, we're not a fee for service organization. We're all funded by small grants from foundations. And so what that means is we get to be an objective voice. And a lot of the data analysis we're providing for one jurisdiction, for instance, when their application portal was open, we were actually analyzing data for them to help them see the geographic distribution of who was applying to help them kind of develop more targeted outreach efforts in areas where there was clearly an under application going on. In other places we've been kind of providing just guidance generally on program structure, based on what's known, but we've also been doing some kind of analytics around the equitable distribution of funds and where there seems to be inequities and need for improvements in their programs.
    And so really trying to add that kind of data analytics piece to these local programs, but outside of their budget costs and the ability for us to maybe say some things that they want to hear and some things they don't want to hear. So that's been really interesting partnerships.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So really kind of helping make sure that provide these tools and analyses to people so that they can use that in ensuring that people get the resources they need. Peter, what about the Eviction Lab? Tell us a little bit more about what you're doing there.

Peter Hepburn:    Yeah. I think much like Kate and Vincent, a lot of our work has been focused on data collection and analysis and trying to better inform the public and better inform policy makers about what's happening right now, especially when it comes to eviction patterns. And that's been the work that we've been doing with the eviction tracking system and it's something that we continue to build on and try to improve on. So for instance, we recently launched a feature in the ETS that allows us to track eviction hotspots in 20 of the cities where we are collecting data. So this is providing information about the buildings that have filed the most eviction cases over the course of the pandemic and trying to understand that eviction is not a diffuse or evenly spread phenomenon. It's actually heavily concentrated in a relatively small set of buildings. And that presents an opening for policymakers and for local officials to intervene and to try to make sure that they are getting resources where they're most needed and that they're working with landlords and property managers to try to steer them away from using the courts as the first option.

Joe Mitchell:    Yeah. That's interesting that it is so concentrated and you're able to use that to alert policymaker and administrators. That's awesome. So we do have some questions that have come in from the chat. So I just wanted to kind of... Kind of a number of questions around kind of what state and local and nonprofits are doing and lessons learned. So I think that the question to the panelists, and I'd ask any of you to jump in, what can the federal government be doing to facilitate learning and experimentation? Are there things that can be done that are not being done or that can be scaled up? So I just turn to any of our panelists in terms of learning more about that or your perspective on that.

Kate Reynolds:    I would just chime in to say that I think that the federal government has done a fantastic job here in terms of trying to disseminate best practices on the emergency rental assistance site, Treasury's site. So if folks haven't already booked there, they have been compiling a list of best practices under certain different headings like eviction prevention practices or self-attestation. They offer a lot of model forms for states and localities to use. I do know that there's a lot of informal peer to peer groups that have formed across the country to sort of help folks learn from one another and disseminate best practices. And I am sure that there are more formalized groups. I know that, for instance, the National League of Cities has a technical assistance opportunity, but I do think that peer learning is really important here and would love to see more of that facilitated through philanthropy and other organizations.

Joe Mitchell:    Great.

Susan Thomas:    Yeah. I, I would, oh, I'm sorry.

Joe Mitchell:    No, yes. Continue.

Susan Thomas:    Yeah, I really echo what Kate said. There has been a lot done on the federal side to really cater the programs as they receive feedback to make things easier. I think that there is a lot more that local and state governments can do to cater their programs to align with those relaxed guidelines and to make things easier in their jurisdictions to get money out the door and to the people who need it the most. And so I would, I would really encourage not only looking at the places where Kate had said. The White House held two convenings that had lots of examples of what can happen or interventions that are working in the court system, interventions that are working with emergency rental assistance on the ground and there are recordings of those. The trust also held a convening of over 100 funders with similar examples. Those have been documented and recorded.
    National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is another organization that the trust supports, we also wrote a grant for their ERASE program that is looking at best practices across all of the emergency rental assistance programs in the country. And they have logged those best practices and they can be found on their website and those are extremely helpful as resources.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. When you mentioned local government, so I was wondering, Susan, if you or others on the panel have thoughts about what's being done to build local capacity. What are some things and so that they can handle the money coming in and to meet the needs of their citizens and the public?

Susan Thomas:    That's a great question. And that's an issue, a real issue, especially coming out of the pandemic and coming out of a period of austerity, there is not the capacity on the ground. Governments are lean. Non-profit organizations who they rely on as partners are extremely lean. I think that there is a unique opportunity to, again, use the unrestricted dollars that have been given to states to help supplement capacity. I think that there's also opportunity for philanthropy and government to partner with philanthropy in being able to supplement the capacity needs on the ground. The partnership that I mentioned earlier, which will be a pilot that will roll out by the end of the year, is exactly that. It is to build the infrastructure on the ground in partnership with philanthropy and state, local and federal government to create that infrastructure that can absorb and then deploy federal dollars and plan over the long term how those dollars can be used, using racial equity as a lens and engaging community in the process with the capacity that they need to do that.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. That's very interesting about the ability of philanthropy to work with local governments to build up that capacity. Other thoughts that people have on the panel about building up local capacity?

Vincent Reina:    I mean, I guess I would just add two things. Well, one is, I think, there's a clear moment here where people are taking stock of where that capacity is. So this is kind of building off a lot of what Susan and Kate already said. In the state of California, they have their local partner network that's very large and robust helping with outreach, but the reality is you have to have those local partners there who can engage in programs like this that are very formalized structures. So earlier on, Susan talked about the fact that there's increasingly a lot of new, smaller organizations or long standing smaller organizations that are really critical to the deployment of these funds. A lot of times it's harder for them to engage with federal programs like this, particularly when they're at being asked to staff up and then be reimbursed and things along those lines. And so we've been working, evaluating the state of California's outreach efforts across these local partner networks, but also really looking at the gaps.
    And I think across the board, in jurisdictions, many places have been forced to really come to terms or face of where those gaps are. And so the critical question becomes, what do you do about them going forward? You can create some fixes in the current moment, but some of these are kind of long term structural needs that are really needed. I would say secondarily, building off the comments that were made, it has been really interesting and unprecedented the role the White House played in convening those eviction summits that they held and other roles. They've really kind of brought parties to the table. And those relationships in many ways are new. The idea of courts talking to the city housing agency, talking to social service providers, those are conversations that people have been trying to instigate for some time and haven't happened. Now, I'm not going to be so naive to say that they're happening everywhere or happening wonderfully everywhere, but that said they're happening a lot more actively.
    And I think in that context, that sets a really critical foundation for those being ongoing and for us to really be developing new solutions that can be spurred from that, that we're seeing now that hopefully we'll see a lot more of going forward, especially if philanthropy and the role it's been playing currently keeps playing that role going forward because when you have the resources there to create those spaces, to create mechanisms, tools, resources, that those become really valuable for sustaining those relationships.

Joe Mitchell:    Yeah, absolutely. So, and the other question that's come in is around self-attestation and the IG audits have shown that that's the greatest area of fraud. So this person wanted to know what's the best way to balance program integrity to maintain public competence and tax-free allocations while also ensuring that the money is gotten out quickly and to the right eligible people? So I know that's a big question. It's a tough question. I don't know if any of our panelists have a thought about kind of that balance between program integrity and getting the money out quickly?

Vincent Reina:    I would just say, as someone intimately working with a bunch of programs, and so as everyone else on this call, just that there's actually very few programs that are still to this day just using self-attestation across all metrics. I would say this kind of balance of the need for accountability and concern of fraud is actually if anything been at the forefront of most jurisdictions' minds, and it's been a process of kind of pulling away from that and administration allowing more guidance to do that has been critical, but really being explicit about that, like outright saying we allow for self-attestation in this context, this context, this context, and that's what that means. But even there, there's still a lot of documentation requirements and process involved from the application and throughout and a lot of different touch points and services.
    What's really interesting is the places getting dollars out the door have been the places that have the most resources like help lines and other things like that, that have really been guiding people through the process. And so I would say, we need to acknowledge that, even with the self-attestation model, there's still a whole lot of process and touch points that become filters along the way. And so I think those wind up serving as kind of natural buffers and barriers for better or worse for kind of addressing some of those issues with fraud. Now, that said, could you ever fully stop fraud in those contexts? Probably not. And so there becomes a balance of trying to really focus on efficiency and expediency and acknowledging that what share of our funds are we comfortable saying maybe wasn't the most effectively distributed, at the benefit of maybe a large share being effectively distributed. And so it's definitely one of the balances.

Joe Mitchell:    Yeah. So, self-attestation still requires some documentation. It's not like it's completely document free. That's good insights and good to know. So our last 10 minutes here, I wanted to just ask each of the panelists, first of all, kind of as you look at the future of pandemic housing relief, what gives you hope and what causes you the most concern? So Susan I'd ask you that first. So kind of what gives you hope and then what causes you the most concern?

Susan Thomas:    Sorry, there.

Joe Mitchell:    Yes.

Susan Thomas:    What gives me hope is that there have been studies that show that on rental debt and eviction risk, that suggests that relief could reach 60 to 65% of the households currently with the highest risk of eviction and that the rental assistance can also help reduce the debt in those households, the rental debt, the utility debt, in those households by the end of the year. And so if we keep on pressing forward, if we are using these best practices, if we are iteratively changing our processes to remove barriers, we can reach that 60 to 65% of high risk households by the end of the year. And so that gives me hope.

Joe Mitchell:    Great, great. Others. Peter, what's your hope and or your concern as you look to the future?

Peter Hepburn:    Sure. I've got both. I think in terms of hopes, the fact that we underwent this once in a century pandemic and a massive economic dislocation that fell heavily on renter households, and yet we've seen less than half as many eviction filings as normal over the course of the last year and a half is remarkable. I mean, that's a testament to the scale of federal interventions and state interventions in this space over the course of the pandemic. The amount of attention being paid to renters here, it's admirable. And it's great to see that that level of energy being expended. I worry that that gets pulled back too soon and that we see, especially around emergency rental assistance, that the sort of rhetoric of slow distribution or of program failure leading to as sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where if we see this money as maybe not being spent quickly enough, then Congress chooses to reallocate to do something else.
    And I think that would be a massive missed opportunity because there is still considerable need and there's a great amount of good that this money could do not just in this year, but over the next several years.

Joe Mitchell:    Got it. Very important points. Vincent, what do you think in terms of your hope and or your concern about the future?

Vincent Reina:    I mean, my hope is that we keep seeing innovation in the housing space. And so in many ways, a lot of the models we're seeing being deployed and developed right now are completely new. The idea of attaching emergency rental assistance to an eviction diversion program like they did in Philadelphia, that's totally new. And things along those lines are really, I think a lot of places have kind of pushed the envelope and innovated in real time. We've never seen government develop a lot of these programs, no less adjust them four times over in the course of the year. And so I think that's really critical to go forward, to acknowledge that government can be an important tool and they can innovate. Are they a solution for everything? No, but clearly there is innovation that could happen there. My real concern is that it's kind of similar to what Peter said in some respects. We talk about rent relief as one thing, but rent relief is a lot of things, and that kind of came up on the call.
    It takes on different forms. The challenges are functionally different. In some places it's been actually tremendously successful. Again in Philadelphia, they're running out of money and they're asking for more funds. In other places, they are not expending the money as quickly and other places have adjusted along the way. And so I think my real fear is that this is a really important learning opportunity. And I think it's pushed the field forward, but there's still so much more to go. And so in exposing all of the issues and challenges, I hope those four serve as grounds for correction and investment as opposed to, to disinvestment and retrenchment away from the investments that housing would need.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Very important. Kate, what's your sense of this?

Kate Reynolds:     Yeah. It's hard to go last because those are all good hopes and concerns, but I will say that I started my career as a case worker working with families and children that many of which were facing eviction and potential homelessness. And so to me, the bigger hope is the fact that landlords have an option now. When they're not seeing rent collection, they can potentially, eviction doesn't have to be the first choice. They have this other option of emergency rental assistance. So I just, yeah, agree with Peter and Vincent in terms of we need to really continue to think about this as not just an emergency response, but really something that we need as part of our ongoing housing system and really continue to innovate.
    The thing that it causes me the most concern, I would say, is kind of the antithesis of Peter's remarks in that there are some places that do have a lot of households with very high needs, mostly in the Southeastern part of the United States, that have also very low rates of expenditure here on emergency rental assistance and really no eviction protections. And so I do worry a lot about the renter households in those places and just ensuring that they're able to access the funds as well.

Joe Mitchell:     Right. Well, we are running near the end of time, but I did want to ask one more question and just go a lightning round. If there's one thing you'd recommend that would be done now or over the long term, what would it be in terms of one thing to address the challenges identified in our conversation today? So, Peter, I'll start with you.

Peter Hepburn:     Immediate short term, I think I'd love to see more states that tie the eviction process to emergency rental assistance applications at this point, especially through eviction diversion programs. It's been a focus for the administration. I think it has a lot of promise in a lot of jurisdictions. Longer term, I would love to see the federal government be in the business of collecting and analyzing eviction data. That's something we are doing, but it should be a priority for the federal government.

Joe Mitchell:     Great. Kate, what's your sense one long term and or near term thing to do?

Kate Reynolds:    Yeah. In the near term, I would love for Treasury to provide more data about the type of households that are being served. So for instance, disaggregated data by race and ethnicity, down to the tract level, for instance, English as a second language. So I know that in places like New York City as Peter mentioned, they're being forthcoming about that data, but it would be wonderful to have that on a national level so that we can really start to track where it is that localities need to sort of focus their efforts.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Okay, Susan, the one thing you'd recommend.

Susan Thomas:    I would recommend short term now is implementing at the local level a provision or a guideline that landlords not proceed with eviction until the applicant has already applied for rental assistance and really hard wiring in some universal eviction prevention guidelines at the courts over the long term. New Jersey just passed some legislation, incredible legislation, that has shifted the rental arrears accumulated during COVID out of the landlord tenant court and into small claims civil court and has re-categorized those as debts to be paid off over time. So there are things that can be, interventions that should be looked at and hard wired in over time.

Joe Mitchell:    Great, very important things. Vincent, what's your sense, the one thing now and or over the long term that should be done?

Vincent Reina:    So I'm going to go a little bit into left field, but related is I think we're currently debating federal policy and the universal Section 8 voucher of the fact that our largest rental subsidy programs a rationing system, and the many challenges with that are vastly on display right now. If we have programs and safety nets in place that can scale up and scale down as needed and aren't use or lose, then we end up in structurally different places. So I think as we're entering this national conversation, we had a president who said the universe housing voucher should be something everyone who's income eligible should be able to get it. And I think that's a really critical tool. I just put in the chat a report we just released showing at the metro level, state level, across multiple dimensions, what that could look like. And I think we really need to be pushing for things like that.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, thank you. I just wanted to thank our panelists. This was a great conversation. I learned a lot. I hope that our audience did too, and a lot of very practical tools and strategies, so cannot thank you enough. And also thank you for our audience. We really appreciate you being with us today and sending your questions, participating, and thanks again to the PRAC for co-hosting this with us. So really appreciate it. Hope that everyone has a good rest of your day. And this is a series of conversations, so I'm sure that we will be continuing this as part of the series. So thank you to everyone.

Page last modified: 11/06/2023
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