Tenants Struggle Amid Patchwork of State Rental Relief Efforts

By: - February 22, 2021 12:00 am

A family unable to pay rent poses outside their apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. A federal eviction ban has helped some renters, but many are still vulnerable, as state efforts to distribute relief money widely vary, and some states still have not approved the federal aid. Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

Late last year, Congress gave Michigan more than half a billion dollars to protect renters in the state from eviction. There was just one catch: State leaders had to sign off on distributing the money.

Nearly two months later, the funding—along with the rest of the federal aid given to Michigan for schools, vaccine distribution and business grants—is stuck in a partisan standoff. Republican lawmakers want to approve only a quarter of the funding, arguing that distributing it in installments will promote transparency. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, wants to make all the money available immediately. Until the dispute is resolved, renters won’t see a dime.

Michigan already has depleted its rental assistance funding from the previous federal relief package.

Some states, including Missouri, Nevada and Washington, moved with little controversy to distribute rental help from Congress. And others, including Colorado and Oregon, even added money from the state budget to the federal relief. But some states have either refused to distribute all the money or struggled with logistics, leaving renters in jeopardy of losing their homes.

While the federal ban on evictions remains in effect through the end of June, loopholes and legal gray areas still leave some tenants vulnerable. Some states have imposed more stringent eviction moratoriums; others have let theirs expire. Even renters who are currently protected from eviction face mounting debt and no clear path to pay it off when those respites end. 

Congress approved $25 billion in December to help renters with that debt—and aid landlords who have been unable to collect payments. Housing experts say even that infusion of money wasn’t enough, and President Joe Biden has called for an additional $30 billion to be included in the forthcoming relief package.

But whether those billions in aid will help save renters depends on how effectively states distribute the money.

Lawmakers in Montana have agreed to allocate only $17 million of the state’s $200 million share of the federal rent relief efforts, as Republicans have expressed doubts that the full amount is necessary. Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has called on legislators to bump that up to $44 million, based on state estimates of demand for the aid. 

The Idaho legislature was slow to approve the funding it received. Although leaders eventually voted to tap the relief package, some lawmakers complained that accepting any federal funds was a form of “dependency.”

In Pennsylvania, state officials failed to distribute nearly two-thirds of the $150 million targeted for rent relief in the previous federal package last spring, as the stringent rules and red tape accompanying the aid stymied most people seeking relief. Most of the funding was plugged back into the state budget. With $848 million in the most recent federal measure, state lawmakers quickly approved the funding while loosening eligibility restrictions, aiming to reach more renters.

Some states have offered money with strings attached: California is using its $2.6 billion share of the federal aid to pay off up to 80% of tenants’ debt—as long as landlords forgive the remaining 20%. Oregon has taken the same approach with its state-paid landlord compensation fund. 

Many large cities and counties have created their own rent relief programs, paid for with a mix of federal, state and local money. Sacramento, California, has launched a .7 million fund to help renters, using state and federal money. Residents in rural areas, in contrast, are largely dependent on state programs to access help.

Eviction rules also vary widely by state and city. Under a new rule approved in September, residents of Washington, D.C., are protected from all eviction proceedings during the pandemic, including lease violations—and the measure frees renters from having to prove financial hardship to dispute eviction.

But Indiana, which has no eviction ban of its own, recently passed a law to prevent cities from creating their own rental rules. Housing advocates and some Democrats point out that the move prevents local officials from being able to protect tenants. 

In many places, renters say eviction bans have not been entirely successful. Some renters simply don’t know about the new rules. Others have been kicked out when their lease expired or for other reasons not tied to payment issues. 

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab database has found that landlords have filed for nearly 250,000 evictions during the pandemic across the five states and 27 cities it tracks.

Some areas have seen particularly high eviction rates. Despite the federal eviction moratorium, more than 2,000 households have been served with eviction in Augusta, Georgia, during 2020, about half the total from the previous year. Landlords in Spokane County, Washington, filed 550 eviction notices in December and January. 

In Jefferson County, Kentucky, more than 1,100 evictions have been filed during the pandemic, and tenant advocates have pleaded with courts to stop evicting tenants until the federal help can be distributed. More than 6,400 Kentucky residents applied for rental aid the first day the state’s program was launched earlier this month.

Some states are looking at changes to the court system, as even the best protections may not help tenants who have difficulty navigating the legal system. Rhode Island’s district court system is seeking volunteer attorneys to provide legal advice to tenants. A bill in Hawaii would require landlords and tenants to go through community mediation before beginning a formal eviction process.

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.