Emergency Rent Assistance: How Your State (& Community) Can Help You Even After COVID-19
In 2020, COVID-19 brought about nationwide moratoriums on evictions. While these moratoriums will soon end in most states, there are still millions of people who will struggle to pay rent. Beyond the emergency rental assistance provided as a result of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, there are other rental assistance resources — and they’ll be available to renters even after the moratoriums cease. From local, state, and federal programs to non-profit organizations and resources, here are some supportive avenues for folks seeking rent assistance.
Ongoing COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance
While eviction moratoriums in many jurisdictions are set to end in June 2021, there are some COVID-19 rental assistance measures that will still apply. For example, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is overseeing a $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Thus far, this money has been distributed to states, territories, tribal governments, and other smaller municipalities, such as towns and counties. When it comes to administrating the program and distributing funds, each entity is responsible for creating a personalized plan to support those in need.
Currently, the program will pay rent for eligible people for at least 12 months, though it maxes out at 15 months. In addition to assuaging current rent, the funds can also be used to pay back rent, current and back utilities, housing stability counseling, and case management. However, all money distribution associated with the program — which state and local governments had to apply for by January 12, 2021 — will end in September 2022.
To be eligible, a household must have experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; be at risk for becoming unhoused; and earn less than 80% of the median income associated with their area. Rather than paying individuals, the program pays utility companies and landlords directly, cutting out the need for a middleman of sorts. It’s also important to note that anyone who qualifies has to re-qualify every three months to continue receiving funds.
When it comes to applying, renters can either apply for themselves or landlords may apply on behalf of their renters. The program prioritizes people who have been unemployed for three or more months as well as those who make less than 50% of the median income associated with their area. If someone who qualifies owes back rent, the back rent will be paid before the current rent.
The exact application process and the timeline for receiving funds through this program depend on the entity that applied for, and received, the funding. Within the same state, some renters may have to apply with the state, while others may have to apply within their town or county. In the end, it all depends on which government entities initially enrolled in the program.
Rental Assistance That Was Available Pre-COVID-19
Every state has some form of Legal Aid. This is a public service that provides free legal counsel and services to people who fall below certain income thresholds and are dealing with legal matters in civil courts. Unlawful eviction is one of the main issues that Legal Aid helps people fight. Moreover, even if a renter believes that an impending eviction is lawful, Legal Aid can make a renter aware of all their rights.
Additionally, while long wait times may not make it a viable solution to an imminent or urgent rental need, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, often referred to as “Section 8,” can present a solid longer-term solution for those who wish to apply. To qualify, a household needs to make 50% less than the median income associated with their area. Once approved, eligible participants are awarded vouchers that obligate a public housing authority to pay a portion of their rent, making rent affordable for people with lower incomes.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most municipalities had lengthy waiting lists for this program, so, as you can imagine, the economic fallout of the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue.
Know Your Rights & Resources
There are hundreds of charities at the national and local levels that offer rental assistance. In many areas, churches will pay rent for any individual, even if that person is not a member of the congregation. One national organization that provides emergency rental assistance is Hopelink, but there are plenty of others.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has an interactive, up-to-date map on assistance available in specific areas. And Just Shelter, another support organization, has a location-based database related to rental and eviction assistance for folks living across the U.S. Both of these resources are perfect for identifying smaller organizations within one’s community that may be willing to help.
First and foremost, tenants who are having trouble paying rent should make themselves aware of the laws in both their state and county as well as the deadlines for any special orders due to COVID-19. In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic may have expanded tenant rights or significantly changed the eviction process.
Although a potentially stressful option, renters may also choose to contact their landlords directly in order to request a rent reduction or back rent forgiveness. Before reaching out, weigh the risks and benefits of having a conversation with your landlord, if that’s possible. Some tenants, for example, are already aware that their landlord is not open to negotiation, but others may have a landlord who is willing to find a temporary solution. If your landlord does agree to something like temporary rent reduction or waiving late fees, be sure to get a new agreement set in writing and ensure that it’s signed by all relevant parties.
Finally, in the last year especially, many communities have poured time and money into mutual aid funds and supported one another through crowdfunding on platforms like GoFundMe, CashApp and Venmo. All of this to say, there are options — even if it doesn’t feel that way at first — but it’s important to research your rights and resources as soon as you encounter a financial hardship.