A Data Tool That Could Help to Target Rental Assistance Programs

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A federal order blocking evictions leaves questions about how people will pay back rent when it finally comes due. Rental assistance programs have limited dollars.

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused have left millions of American renters more vulnerable to eviction as household finances are strained by job losses and fewer work hours. 

This week, the Trump administration, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued an order intended to temporarily halt evictions through the end of the year for people dealing with financial difficulties. Housing advocates applauded the step, saying it could extend a lifeline to millions of people, helping them to remain in their homes. But they also note that the order will not aid renters in covering back rent payments when they finally come due.

“It is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed. This action delays but does not prevent evictions,” National Low Income Housing Coalition President and CEO Diane Yentel said in a statement.

Stout Risius Ross, LLC, a global advisory firm, estimated at the end of July that renter households across the U.S. were collectively about $21.5 billion short on rent.

A data tool the Urban Institute recently launched aims to help identify areas that could benefit the most from emergency rental assistance. It offers an interactive map, displaying estimates of the relative risks of eviction and homelessness in different census tracts.

“We’re seeing more people than ever at risk of losing their homes,” Samantha Batko, a researcher at the Urban Institute said. “As local policymakers and community organizations work together to provide relief to families, our new tool is an additional asset in ensuring the most vulnerable renters receive the assistance they need.”

House Democrats included $100 billion for rental assistance, along with other housing funding, in a coronavirus relief bill they passed in May. But Democrats and Republicans, who control the Senate, have been unable to come to agreement on a bill providing pandemic aid. 

In the meantime, state and local governments have launched various rental assistance programs, but funding is limited, forcing leaders into hard decisions about how to best target aid.

The index used for the Urban Institute tool incorporates three sub-indexes to gauge which communities it could make the most sense to prioritize for help. The sub-indexes factor in variables like the percentage of people living in poverty, the share of low-income jobs lost due to the pandemic and the proportion of households receiving public assistance.

While the tool could be of some help as local policy makers decide where to focus rental assistance initiatives, the researchers who developed it note that it might not accurately capture current needs in every neighborhood because it relies on historical data. They recommend the tool be used in conjunction with other local data and community engagement efforts.

The tool can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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