News & Politics

Why Is Federal Aid to Renters Buried in Red Tape?

Paul Sakuma

There is a gigantic $47 billion bottleneck in federal dollars earmarked for renters who are behind in their payments.

This is not a question of Congress refusing or being slow to act. Congress has acted. But many states have made the process of accessing that money so impossibly difficult and confusing that many renters who may be entitled to thousands of dollars have simply given up.

HuffPost reports that “Through June, only 15 states and the District of Columbia had spent 10% or more of their Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds, which were initially approved by Congress in December.” That’s criminal. Also according to HuffPost, in at least 40 states, cities, and counties, not a single dollar of emergency rental assistance (ERAP) has reached anyone.

The problems stem partly from the fact that Congress has never thrown so much money at an anti-eviction program, so officials at lower levels of government have struggled to find their footing.

“In most cases they couldn’t scale up an already-existing program, or if they could scale up an existing program, that program was tiny compared to the funding available now,” said Ann Oliva, a housing policy expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “That explains some of the lag.”

“Throwing money at the problem” really doesn’t work. Who would have thunk it?

HuffPost reached out to every area that hadn’t handed out any ERAP money through June. The ones who responded cited the difficulty of getting a new program off the ground, inter-governmental coordination struggles, burdensome requirements and even trouble attracting applicants. Many of them also stressed that they have been sending out other housing assistance funds, and others have managed to get their programs up and running in July and August.

It’s supposed to be “Emergency Rental Assistance” and it’s taken them eight blooming months to get the program off the ground? I wonder how long it took them to decide the color scheme for the washrooms?

“The fact that some places are doing a really good job of spending down their resources shows that really any city and state can be doing this and that there’s no excuse for not getting this money out the door,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Unreal.

New York State is a typical example. Apparently, Governor Cuomo was too busy chasing skirts to get rental assistance to New York citizens. The state had sent out no federal rental assistance through June despite having the largest number of renters in arrears.

But the system was a mess. The initial application process was lengthy and full of technical glitches. It was unclear what documentation applicants needed to be eligible, and the website would time out before they were able to properly submit their forms, forcing them to start over again.

“The main reason is that the application was f***ing impossible,” said Bill Neidhardt, de Blasio’s spokesperson. “I think it’s strategic incompetence. That’s why they delayed it, and that’s why they rolled out a mind-bogglingly unusable interface. Both those things show they didn’t want people to get the money.”

Regardless of why the money was delayed, the fact is that there were tens of thousands of people eligible for the money who never got it because the state of New York made it impossible for ordinary people to apply for it.

It makes you wonder how many more of these pandemic programs that were allocated billions of dollars never came close to reaching the people in need. How many other programs had trouble “getting off the ground” or difficulty in “attracting applicants,” or saw turf battles between bureaucrats? How much of those trillions in pandemic aid will still be sitting around in five years? In 10 years?

Yes, but at least the politicians “did something about the problem.”