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Biden Administration needs to act to prevent more rent-relief delays

rent relief
Posted at 5:38 PM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 17:38:52-05

While Congress set aside $25 billion for rent relief in the latest stimulus package, it still has not been distributed to most states. That will likely happen in the next few days. However, some are warning that delays, seen with some state-enacted and funded rent relief programs, could become more widespread.

"I applied for rent relief in the summer of 2020, I didn’t hear back for six months,” said a Boston woman who worked as a videographer and photographer before the pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic, the industry I work in essentially evaporated,” she explained.

She tried to keep up with her rent, even though she was not working but fell behind over the summer. She had hopes that Massachusetts’s rent-relief programs could help her, but it dwindled with each month that went brand she did not get a response from the program.

“In this time my roommate and I were struggling,” she explained, "We ended up leaving our apartment out of fear because we were worried about accumulating more debt and our lease was expiring, so we didn’t know what to do.”

She did not know it then, but that decision disqualified her from now being able to actually get the rent relief. The program notified her of that shortly after. Now, she owes thousands in back rent, has no idea where the money for that will come from, and no longer has a place of her own.

She is still fighting the program’s decision but also has taken her fight to the group Cancel the Rents, Boston. The group hopes to get rent debt completely canceled directly by Congress or President Biden on the position that the current program is not helping many in need. For example, in Massachusetts, the state is soon expected to get $500 million from the $25 billion in federal rent relief dollars to distribute. However, the state set aside roughly $100 million in rent relief months ago and still has not been able to fully disburse that money to people in need.

“A lot of people are in this situation. A lot of people have applied for this relief and have gone months without hearing back, and in that time, a lot can happen,” she added.

"A majority of those programs have worked well,” said Diane Yentel with the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “Most of them have gotten the money out quickly and efficiently to the people who needed the money most."

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition has followed rent-relief distribution around the country. She says two issues have caused delays in getting rent relief to those in need. The first centers around programs being understaffed and overwhelmed. The second and bigger issue is around programs having overburdened themselves and tenants with bureaucracy.

“Some of them had additional restrictions on the funds unnecessarily,” explained Yentel. "Some of them required an hour-long intake interview and a 55-page application.”

Essentially, some programs added extra barriers, beyond what Congress stipulated, for the rent relief and that has slowed down distribution.

Again, for the most part, these delays in rent relief have been limited to a handful of states, with programs understaffed or that added extra requirements for the funds. However, Yentel now fears the issue could now become far more widespread.

On the last day of the Trump Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an FAQ with new guidance for the $25 billion in rent relief it’s releasing.

“It is unfortunately and unnecessarily restrictive,” said Yentel. “It is requiring localities to have burdensome documentation, including some that could do long-term harm to some tenants, like requiring eviction notices in hand before people can get those funds.”

The requirement set forth by the U.S. Treasury Department under the Trump Administration could lead to long-term issues for people to get short-term help. For example, requiring an eviction notice to have been file will lead to someone being struggling to rent for years to come. Most landlords will not allow someone with prior evictions on file to rent from them.

“We’ll be urging incoming secretary Yellen to put out rescind this FAQ and start over,” Yentel added.

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