Connecting state and local government leaders
Beyond covering rent, the federal funding laid the groundwork for improved partnerships with courts and data integration that will help communities continue providing support.
For the most part, emergency rental assistance is exactly what it sounds like: cash to cover housing costs. But behind such programs are crucial processes and partnerships designed to support renters in the long term, researchers say. During the pandemic, federal assistance nurtured that behind-the-scenes work, but as that funding winds down, it’s up to cities and states to determine if and how they’ll build out their programs.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance, or ERA, program made $46.55 billion available to cities, states and territories to create rental assistance programs or bolster existing ones. While the lion's share of that funding went to direct cash assistance initiatives, up to 15% was available for administrative costs including staffing and technological infrastructure.
“With such a huge amount of money coming through, the pieces for administrative costs were really important,” said Rebecca Yae, director of the Housing Initiative at Penn. The federal funding helped agencies hire staff to oversee the programs, bringing new energy and support to housing efforts, according to a new study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Housing Institute at Penn. Researchers surveyed more than 100 ERA program administrators and interviewed 10 to get a pulse on the future of emergency rental assistance programs.
With dedicated funding and personnel, many city, state and county agencies administering emergency rental assistance strengthened their relationships with court systems and community based organizations. More than 40% of administrators surveyed—including those that don’t plan to continue financial assistance programs—plan to retain court partnerships and eviction diversion services after the federal ERA program officially sunsets.
Those partnerships also fostered new data-sharing practices, supported legal services for tenants and bolstered eviction diversion programs.
King County, Washington, for instance, created a dataset tracking the “lifecycle” of evictions by collecting data from the sheriff’s office and the court system to measure the effectiveness of different housing initiatives as it continues its emergency rental assistance program. Similarly in Kentucky, court eviction case data is now integrated with the state housing agency's eviction diversion processing system.
“What was so great about this program was that counties and courts were really able to come together,” said Yae. “Some courts are not as amenable to collaboration and have a lot of concerns around sharing data,” but seeing the impact of reduced evictions helped bring more court administrators to the table, she added.
In total, researchers found that about half of jurisdictions are continuing emergency financial assistance programs to help renters with missed rent or utility payments, late fees and, in some cases, hotel or motel stays. Many of those communities are building on program features made available by the ERA funding. For instance, two-thirds of jurisdictions continuing with their own programs plan to allow renters to self-attest to eligibility requirements, a provision allowed under the federal program.
Some jurisdictions that plan to continue emergency rental assistance programs may only be doing so provisionally. Nearly half of such communities are using temporary federal funds, like the pandemic-era state and local fiscal recovery funds, to maintain their programs.
Another tactic for sustaining rental assistance programs has been tapping into dedicated pots of funding. Before the pandemic, King County financed rental assistance for youth experiencing homelessness from a local tax levy. In 2021, the state established a dedicated funding source for an emergency rental assistance program. Those two sources will provide -$17 million in the first year for emergency rental assistance and $8 million in the second. Still, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $360 million the county received during the pandemic, the report noted.
As cities and states build out programs with fewer resources, they’re forced to consider who to prioritize for the assistance and for how long. The federal ERA program provided assistance for up to 18 months, and households making up to 80% of the area’s median income were eligible.
Only 18% of jurisdictions said they would provide assistance for 13 to 18 months, and just under 30% set eligibility at 80% of era median income. To ensure assistance goes to those who need it most, more than half of jurisdictions will prioritize households with active eviction cases.
Among jurisdictions that don’t plan to continue emergency rental assistance programs, about 90% cited a lack of dedicated funding as a reason for terminating their programs. Staffing challenges were the next most-cited reason.
But even in those jurisdictions, the survey results “suggest that the Treasury ERA program fundamentally changed agencies’ long-term focuses,” the report said.
For example, one state ERA program administrator cited in the report noted that eviction diversion programs had never been on his agency’s agenda due to a lack of funding. But the additional support from the federal government pushed the agency to consider how such programs fit into other work it was conducting, such as financing affordable housing.
“For many jurisdictions, this is the first direct service program that city or county administrators were actually doing,” Yae said. “I think that having that more direct interaction through this program has really underscored that there are just so many needs to address.”