It may not surprise you to learn that, with the states in charge of allocating the money, performance from state to state has been wildly uneven. According to data recently released by the Treasury Department, Virginia and Texas have been bright spots, allocating $155.5 million and $139.8 million in aid between January and May. Rhode Island, by contrast, managed to pay out just $100,000, and that didn’t happen until May. In between, you’ve got Georgia giving out $11 million of an available $552 million, North Dakota at $3.4 million of $200 million, North Carolina providing $73 million out of $546 million and California distributing $73 million of $1.4 billion.
Fewer than 100,000 households were helped in April, rising to almost 160,000 in May. That leaves millions of households still in danger of eviction, according to Census Bureau surveys. And eviction is life-shattering: In addition to the loss of a home and possessions, and children often having to switch schools abruptly, Princeton University’s Eviction Lab explains, “A legal eviction comes with a court record, which can prevent families from relocating to decent housing in a safe neighborhood, because many landlords screen for recent evictions. Studies also show that eviction causes job loss, as the stressful and drawn-out process of being forcibly expelled from a home causes people to make mistakes at work and lose their job. Eviction also has been shown to affect people’s mental health: one study found that mothers who experienced eviction reported higher rates of depression two years after their move. The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.”
This crushing damage will fall unevenly: Black families and single mothers are the most likely to face eviction.
The Biden administration is trying to avert this crisis by getting rental assistance money out, but the outcomes aren’t under federal control.
“The law gives the states and local governments the responsibility to get funds out without giving us hardly any sticks and carrots,” said Gene Sperling, who is in charge of implementing the American Rescue Plan. “So we are just doing everything imaginable in our power—from new guidance to new flexibilities to threats of reallocation—to push, guide, coax, and convene because we are in a race with time and the stakes are so high.”
In addition to delays at the state and local level, more than half of renters don’t even know that rental assistance should be available. Tenants who do know may face a burdensome application process—California only recently cut its application from one that could take three hours to complete to one that takes half an hour. And some landlords are refusing to accept the federal money, a situation that apparently hasn’t been fully fixed by the Biden administration directing programs to give assistance directly to tenants when landlords refuse to accept the money themselves.
Renters need policies beyond just rental assistance—though heaven knows if the rental assistance money would actually reach the people who need it, it would help a lot. One key program is mediation between tenants and landlords. The Biden administration is encouraging it, but more state and local governments need to require it, as Philadelphia is doing.
Unless the billions of dollars in unspent rental assistance start going out a lot faster, though, things are going to get very ugly in August.