Research Supports a Flexible Emergency Rental Assistance Program
A recent study sought to glean lessons from the state and local rental assistance programs launched in 2020 before the emergency rental assistance programs funded by the coronavirus relief package signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020, ramps up. The difficult task of administering these funds will fall to state and local governments, many of which have never provided direct rental assistance, or will need to scale up their 2020 efforts significantly.
The report, “COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance: Analysis of a National Survey of Programs,” surveyed 220 emergency rental assistance program administrators. Conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiative at Penn, the NYU Furman Center, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the survey launched in August 2020 and collected responses until October 2020. Thus, most of the programs surveyed relied, at least in part, on CARES Act funding.
The report provides a detailed overview of the ways these programs were designed and implemented. It highlights key challenges municipalities said they faced, and examines program decisions against several outcome metrics, including a ratio of actual households served relative to numbers they expected to serve, and the funds obligated as a share of total program funds.
Programs that had a greater number of requirements for landlords or more stringent requirements for landlords tended to serve fewer households than they expected to serve. In particular, the longer a program asked landlords to not evict tenants, the fewer households the program served than expected. Programs with more stringent documentation requirements tended to have challenges with incomplete applications.
The report concluded that, in general, flexibility was an important feature of successful programs. Greater flexibility was possible for programs using federal funding streams that had less stringent requirements. Flexible programs were able to respond to a wider range of tenants’ and landlords’ needs; they were also able to adapt their program structures, application processes, and requirements to respond to local needs and challenges over time.
The authors observed programs making adjustments after their launch in response to specific challenges. For instance, a good balance between protecting tenants and granting landlords flexibility was challenging to achieve in many places. Landlords were sensitive to requirements that they freeze rent, forgive arrears, or suspend evictions (especially for longer periods of time). While tenant protections are of the utmost importance, landlords weigh these restrictions against the assistance they would receive and may choose not to participate.
Some programs modified landlord requirements to increase participation rates. Others introduced a path for direct-to-tenant rental assistance to ensure that households could receive support despite a lack of landlord engagement.