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Regional Interests

Why The Delay For Those Needing Federal Rental Assistance?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Peter Hepburn is a Rutgers University assistant professor and a researcher at Princeton's Eviction Lab. He's on the line now to help us make sense of why so many people are having such a hard time actually accessing emergency rental assistance. Thanks for joining us, Peter.

PETER HEPBURN: Thanks for having me on.

FADEL: So, Peter, so many people are struggling to pay rent, some of whom we just heard. Can you help us understand why only 11% of the money approved by Congress for assistance actually has found its way to renters?

HEPBURN: Yeah. You know, I think it's important to recognize that there's not just one rental assistance program right now in this country. There are almost 500 state, county, city and tribal programs that are operating nationwide. And some of them are doing a remarkably good job, I think, of simplifying the application process, doing outreach to renters and landlords and really getting the money out the door - you know, places like Virginia, Texas, Washington, D.C., you know, Charlotte, N.C. But there are other programs that are - that really haven't made changes to try to make this money accessible and where we see real significant administrative burdens to renters and to landlords in accessing these funds.

FADEL: So how does - how do you streamline something like that with 500 different places getting rent out to people?

HEPBURN: Yeah. I think that's the challenge that the federal government has right now. You know, they have taken steps to try to encourage these programs to be more flexible and to encourage ways of reducing burdens on renters and landlords, for instance, more self-attestation of eligibility for these programs rather than having to provide a lot of documentation. But the challenge is in getting the state and local programs to actually take up those changes. You know, I think there's a lot of concern, often misplaced concern on the part of program administrators, about fraud. And that's going to slow disbursement of these funds.

FADEL: So walk us through what it's like as a renter to try to get this money.

HEPBURN: You know, because there are so many different programs out there, it varies considerably from place to place.

FADEL: Right.

HEPBURN: So, for instance, I'm in New York, and here we have an online application system. There's no paper application that's available. It's been designed, you know, for someone who has a laptop computer, but not necessarily to work on mobile. And a lot of people just don't have a laptop. It involves eight separate screens that people have to go through. They have to upload documentation. Often those uploads have been slow. And for the last couple of months, there hasn't been a way to save an application that's in process, which means that, you know, once you get started, you have to have everything ready to go.

By contrast, there are programs that have done a good job of making these application processes very simple, open to someone who's doing it on their cellphone, who maybe doesn't have an email address and that don't require them to submit so many documents all at once.

FADEL: Now, the Eviction Lab has tracked more than 6,500 evictions filed just this week across the country. Peter, why are these evictions happening when there's so much federal money allocated for struggling renters that's unspent, not to mention the CDC's eviction moratorium that's still in effect?

HEPBURN: Yeah. You know, it's important to emphasize that eviction cases continue to be filed, but many fewer than normal.

FADEL: OK.

HEPBURN: Right now, eviction filing rates are less than half of what we would expect to see under normal conditions. And that's despite twice as many renters as normal being behind on rent. I think that's a testament to both the efficacy of the CDC moratorium and the promise that these funds hold out for renters and for landlords. But at the same time, program awareness is far from universal. These applications can be onerous. And they're going to be a certain number of, you know, tenants and landlords for whom it's hard to reach and hard to bring to the table and resolve these disputes.

But I also worry that there is an aspect of a self-fulfilling prophecy here, where, you know, the programs that aren't doing well so far, that don't appear to be getting money out the door, it's going to be a lot harder to get renter and landlord buy-in on those programs and to convince a landlord that it's better to wait and to go through the rental assistance program rather than to go for an eviction case when they see that, you know, in Mississippi, less than 5% of available funds have actually been spent.

FADEL: So what can the federal government do to try to get this money to renters faster and to landlords so that they don't start these eviction processes?

HEPBURN: Yeah. I think, you know, they've taken steps to facilitate the process and try to encourage these local programs to simplify applications. But there's always challenges in getting programs to do that across the country. You know, coming up at the end of September, there's a deadline for spending the initial round of funding and a reallocation deadline. And I think the threat of losing the funds that were allocated by Congress and having those redistributed is an incentive.

FADEL: Peter Hepburn, thank you.

HEPBURN: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WEST WINDOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.