NEW ORLEANS, LA (April 8, 2021) – More than a year into the pandemic, the economic crisis has resulted in an estimated more than $70 billion in unpaid rent nationally. In fact, nearly one in five renters are behind in their monthly balances, according to a new survey by the Census Bureau. With extended bans on evictions, this has also placed a significant strain on landlords. To provide relief, Congress approved more than $46 billion in recent months. And now it’s up to state and local governments to get those funds where they’re needed, posthaste.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury provided $25 billion to assist renters at risk of eviction due to unpaid rent in January; and the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law this month, added another $21.5 billion for similar purposes, along with $5 billion for housing vouchers that can be used for rental assistance. The funds are provided directly to states and local governments to deploy.
“This federal emergency funding can’t hit the streets soon enough,” said Whitney Roche, a Civix Director of Program Management. “Even though expedited assistance is of the greatest importance, state and local governments still have to ensure compliance without sacrificing speed.”
Drawing on experience managing some of the largest federal disaster recovery grants in U.S. history, Civix is working with states and local governments to design and implement emergency rental assistance programs.
Beyond program design and compliance, Roche says the most challenging task for state and local governments is to make eligible residents aware of the program and to facilitate a smooth application process.
“The focus has to be on bringing the program to applicants rather than putting the burden on them,” said Roche. “This is but one of the lessons learned from our experience with disaster recovery grants that we’re applying to this crisis. Just like when people have lost their homes to a wildfire or a flood, we need to lighten their load and make it easier for them to get assistance.”
One of the ways to do that is by monitoring program data and coordinating with state agencies that can help.
“Program leadership must constantly evaluate operational data to identify pain points and reduce friction,” said Roche. “Income validation is a part of the process that can overwhelm applicants. Obtaining and providing paystubs, unemployment statements, or tax filing documentation takes time and leaves many questions with regards to accuracy and completeness. By partnering with other state agencies that collect data on unemployment or household income, we can validate key information on behalf of the applicant, so the process can keep moving forward without delays.”
In addition to the program operations, a comprehensive public engagement strategy is critical to ensure those in need of assistance are aware of the program and can access whatever support they need with the application process. Teams can leverage traditional media, town hall meetings, and engaging in grassroots outreach to spread the word about the program. Working with established nonprofits and community organizations can be one of the most valuable tactics as they have existing networks and connections in the areas they serve.
Roche anticipates that these types of federal emergency programs will become more and more common, further stretching the already thin capacity of state and local agencies.
“State and local agencies already have full plates, and when these emergency dollars come down, it’s a whole new challenge to get them where they’re needed quickly and in compliance,” he said. “That’s why a trusted partner who has ‘been there, done that’ is so important.”