WASHINGTON — Make it simpler to apply for rental assistance money. Allow landlords to apply on behalf of unresponsive tenants. And consolidate two overlapping federal programs aimed at getting financial help to struggling renters.
Those were among the proposals that U.S. House members weighed during a hearing Friday on how to better help states and localities that have moved far too slowly in getting federal emergency rental assistance funds to tenants who need that aid.
Of the $46.5 billion approved by Congress to help renters who fell behind on payments amid the pandemic, only $5.1 billion had been distributed by the end of July, according to Treasury data.
Some states and localities have done better than others, according to housing advocates who testified Friday before the House Financial Services Committee.
New Jersey has distributed 61% of the state’s allocation from the first round of congressional rental assistance money.
Virginia, Texas and the District of Columbia all have distributed more than half of those dollars, according to Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
More than a dozen cities and counties have spent more than 80% of their initial allocations, Yentel said. Her written testimony noted that those higher-spending localities include Philadelphia; Leon County, Fla.; and Milwaukee County, Wis.
North Carolina has done better than most jurisdictions. In late August, WRAL reported that it ranked sixth nationally in terms of the money distributed and second in terms of the number of people helped.
Struggles in Georgia, Tennessee
But those success stories have been the outliers, she said, adding that 17 states and many localities have spent less than 10% of their allocation, including Georgia and Tennessee.
The reasons for that have varied. Some localities were hamstrung by the need for a state legislature or city council to sign off on a new program, while some received more money than they needed. Others struggled to get landlords or tenants to participate.
And even after federal officials increased flexibility on the required documentation, such as allowing renters to self-attest that they meet eligibility requirements, fewer than 17% of programs allow that easier process.
“Slow-spending [rental assistance] programs tend to do little outreach. They don’t have enough staff to process applications. They have long and complicated applications with overly burdensome documentation requirements,” Yentel said.
She added that if simplified application practices remain optional, “many programs will not adopt them.”
While there’s bipartisan agreement that the rental assistance programs have moved too slowly, Democrats and Republicans disagree over how to get the money moving faster. Read more