States in US struggle to get rent relief to tenants amid pandemic – ET RealEstate

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last July that New York would spend $100 million in federal coronavirus relief to help cash-strapped tenants pay months of back rent and avert evictions.

By the end of October, the state had doled out only about $40 million, reaching 15,000 of the nearly 100,000 people looking for help. More than 57,000 applicants were denied because of criteria set by lawmakers that many said was difficult to meet.

New York’s experience played out nationwide, with states failing to spend tens of millions of federal dollars aimed at helping renters avoid eviction. Burdensome requirements, poorly administered programs and landlords refusing to cooperate meant tens of thousands of tenants never got assistance. Some states also shifted funding away from rental relief, fearing they’d miss a year-end mandate to spend the money – a deadline that got extended.

The problem, housing advocates said, was that the federal government didn’t specifically earmark any of the coronavirus aid for rental relief, leaving states scrambling to set up programs with no guidance on how the money should be allocated. As much as $3.43 billion in federal aid was spent on rental assistance, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition. But advocates said more should have been done, given tenants faced as much as $34 billion in unpaid rent through January, according to a report released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies.

States’ rental relief programs “were a very mixed success. It was sort of a patchwork of programs,” Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in February. “There was a lot of experimentation – some successful, some not.”

Several states have since made changes, hoping to be better positioned to handle their portion of more than $45 billion in rental assistance coming from Congress in the coming months.

Last year, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kansas were among the states that struggled to distribute rental assistance. Kansas set aside $35 million but siphoned off $15 million for other uses, realizing only on Dec. 27 that it had more time to spend the money.

Mississippi allocated $18 million for rental relief but committed less than $3 million by December. The state said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined the grant program it relied on could not help tenants behind on rent, only those at risk of homelessness. A HUD spokesman denied that, saying the money could be used for rental aid.

In New York, difficulties were blamed on lawmakers’ criteria, including that tenants show they were paying over 30% of their income toward rent. Applicants also had to show a loss of income from April to the end of July, when some saw an increase from extended unemployment and other benefits.

“When you have $100 million to help and only 40% is spent, something is wrong. There is no question there are a lot of people in need,” Justin La Mort, a supervising attorney at Mobilization for Justice Inc., a nonprofit legal services provider in New York.

He said the program was too focused on preventing fraud – at the expense of helping people.

Bonney Ginett, whose massage therapy business dried up during the pandemic, applied for help in July and said she was denied in October because she failed to prove loss of income. The 66-year-old New York City resident now owes more than $26,000 in back rent on her one-bedroom apartment and fears eviction.

“It’s a well-meaning program and probably should and ought to be fixed, but it’s hard to say because of how much overload their system experienced and might still be experiencing,” Ginett said. “The types of relief that could help me are supposedly there. But then you run into a brick wall.”

Lennard Katz, her landlord and a partner at Sussex Realty, said he didn’t understand how Ginett couldn’t get help.

“We believe it’s a travesty that NY State has been unable or unwilling to get money to the tenants and landlords that desperately need assistance during the Covid crisis,” he said by email.

Charni Sochet, a spokesperson for New York State Homes and Community Renewal, said the affordable housing agency “worked intensely for months to ensure rent-burdened households received the assistance for which they qualified” and that “the rent relief program quickly delivered funding to renters most in need in accordance with the specific requirements established by the Legislature.”

Pennsylvania had similar problems, spending $54 million on rental assistance and $10 million on mortgage assistance, out of nearly $175 million dedicated for the program. Just over one-third of applicants got help.

Facing the Republican-controlled Legislature’s Nov. 30 deadline to spend the money, the state Housing Finance Authority returned the bulk of it. Some of it went to the corrections department.

“There were a lot of sort of roadblocks put up for people to really effectively and easily get into the program, get the assistance and stay in their homes,” said Bryce Maretzki, director of the housing authority’s Office of Strategic Planning & Policy.

Perhaps the biggest problem was a $750 monthly cap. That’s below the median rent in Pennsylvania, making it inadequate in bigger cities with higher housing prices.

Applicants also had to be 30 days behind on rent, which Maretzki said meant someone might fall behind to qualify, only to “run the risk of losing your house and then not qualifying for the program.”

“There were many tenants who didn’t think the money would come in time, so they moved in with a family or doubled up or found less suitable housing because they didn’t think they could make the next month’s rent,” said Rachel Garland, an attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

In Louisiana, $24 million in assistance for renters facing pandemic-related financial problems was announced July 16, with about half coming from federal funding.

Just $2.3 million has been distributed to 956 applicants, said Keith Cunningham of the Louisiana Housing Corporation, the agency administering the effort. The program was so swamped with inquiries, the online system shut down within days. And there was a lengthy application.

“Do you think the person who is reaching out to you has a fax machine or solid enough internet or a printer in their house to handle a 50-page application?” said Andreanecia Morris of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance.

Cunningham said the program’s size was daunting, made more challenging by a busy tropical storm season.

“No one in the state has done anything on that scope,” he said. “There was no infrastructure, no system to deliver. … We had to really build it from scratch.”

Yaeko Scott, who lost her housekeeping job during the pandemic and owes $6,000 in rent on her family’s two-bedroom apartment in New Orleans, said she’s repeatedly tried to get help.

“I’m aggravated,” she said. “Nothing is being done. Everyone is calling asking about the rent. I’m not getting anything. It’s really, really rough right now.”

Some states have made changes with new federal aid coming.

In Louisiana, roughly 7,000 applicants who were initially considered will get priority for $161 million, Cunningham said.

Pennsylvania fixed its $750 rental cby reinterpreting the law and said a different agency would handle the new funding.

New York expanded the program’s eligibility and will reconsider applicants who were initially denied.

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Ban on renter evictions during covid-19 pandemic is extended in US – ET RealEstate

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WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is extending a federal moratorium on evictions of tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday moved to continue the pandemic-related protection, which had been scheduled to expire on Wednesday. The moratorium is now extended through the end of June.

The ban, initially put in place last year, provides protection for renters out of concern that having families lose their homes and move into shelters or share crowded conditions with relatives or friends during the pandemic would further spread the highly contagious virus, which has killed more than 545,000 people in the United States.

To be eligible for the housing protection, renters must earn $198,000 annually or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate that they’ve sought government help to pay the rent; declare that they can’t pay because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

In February, President Joe Biden extended a ban on housing foreclosures to June 30 to help homeowners struggling during the pandemic.

Housing advocates had generally expected the extension of the tenant eviction moratorium and had been lobbying the Biden administration, saying it was too early in the country’s economic recovery to let the ban lapse.

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said that the moratorium “is vital for ensuring there is enough time for Congress’s emergency rental assistance to reach the millions of renters in need who would otherwise be evicted.”

Pollack said current surveys show that 18.4% of all tenants owe back rent. That number also revealed significant racial disparity: The percentage of Black tenants behind on their rent was 32.9%.

But Pollock and other housing advocates were disappointed that Biden merely extended the ban without addressing several issues that put many tenants at risk of eviction.

“In Massachusetts, judges have green-lighted over 1,700 evictions under the federal eviction moratorium. While it is protecting some families, it’s clearly not protecting all,” said Denise Matthews-Turner, the interim executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots housing justice organization in Boston. “The extension is a good thing, but it’s disappointing that the moratorium wasn’t also strengthened to keep families from falling through the cracks, such as families with no-fault evictions or whose landlords won’t accept rent relief.”

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said she and others had pushed to make the ban’s protections automatic and universal. Currently, tenants have to actively take steps to invoke the ban’s protections, which can lead to exploitation of those who don’t know their rights or don’t understand the process.

Also, some jurisdictions have allowed landlords to initiate the eviction process in court, a tactic that scared many families into leaving rather than having the eviction proceedings, even unfinished ones, on their records.

“While the Biden administration is well aware of the shortcomings in the moratorium order that allow some evictions to proceed during the pandemic, the CDC director did not correct them,” Yentel said.

Instead, the CDC “simply extended President Trump’s original order, leaving the loopholes and flaws in place, a disappointing decision that will result in more harmful evictions during the pandemic,” she said.

Pollock said the moratorium should also include a provision ensuring tenants have a right to counsel, “so that they can effectively use rental assistance and fight the increasing wave of illegal evictions.”

Isabel Miranda, who has an eviction hearing next month in Massachusetts, had mixed feelings about the extension. She worries that the courts and the landlord will not recognize the federal moratorium, but also appreciates that the ban gives her time to come up with nearly $10,000 in back rent owed on a one-bedroom apartment she shares with her partner and two children.

“It’s good news. It’s something that we at least have in our defense to prevent homelessness,” she said. “It gives us more hope that we will have time to navigate through the rental assistance that is being provided.”

Landlords in several states have sued to scrap the order, arguing it was causing them financial hardship and infringing on their property rights. They remain opposed to any extension, saying it does nothing to address the financial challenges facing renters and landlords.

There are at least six prominent lawsuits challenging the authority of the CDC ban. So far, three judges have sided with the ban and three have ruled against, with all cases currently going through appeals. One judge in Memphis declared the CDC order unenforceable in the entire Western District of Tennessee.

Chuck Fowke, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said he was “disappointed that the Administration is still pushing this poorly thought out and illegal policy.”

Fowke said in a statement that the government was embracing a short-term fix by “saddling landlords with the responsibility to provide free housing during this pandemic.”

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