COVID-19 Forces Tough Decisions in Housing Assistance

By: - June 9, 2020 12:00 am

A poster hangs on a Brooklyn, New York, brownstone. COVID-19 is forcing local governments to make tough decisions about rental assistance. John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx via AP

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After distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in the past three months, states and cities don’t have much money left to help struggling renters, leaving officials with an uncomfortable question: Who gets prioritized for help? 

COVID-19 is forcing local governments to make tough decisions about rental assistance: Some programs are relying on lotteries to ensure all applicants have a fair shot, while others are focusing on specific populations, such as workers ineligible for federal relief.

Most of the housing aid Americans get is federal. Federal housing dollars are distributed through local housing authorities and community development agencies, either through housing vouchers, public housing, other rental assistance programs or affordable housing units built with federal tax credits.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government has sent an additional billion to cities and states to help with housing issues — in addition to other federal pandemic aid such as stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits to help individuals get through the downturn.

Even before the pandemic, many cities and states paid for additional housing help with their own money, and some have ratcheted up those efforts. But the crisis has created unprecedented demand.  

The ongoing need for housing assistance will exceed whatever money cities and states have, said Gary Painter, a professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview with Stateline.

“At some point, you’re going to ration resources.”

One way to do that is to prioritize certain populations, such as very-low-income renters; those who are at risk of homelessness; or renters not eligible for other public assistance, Painter said. Another option is to base the amount of assistance on a tenant’s income and rent. 

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.