Renter stimulus checks find few takers, even as new evictions loom

·5 min read
Renter stimulus checks find few takers, even as new evictions loom
Renter stimulus checks find few takers, even as new evictions loom

If you’re behind on your rent, you should already know that the Centers for Disease Control’s pandemic-triggered national ban on evictions is set to expire on July 31.

But what you may not know is that the government's last two COVID stimulus bills set aside $46.6 billion in emergency rental assistance for people unable to pay their housing costs due to financial disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

The money has been crawling its way to Americans, so there's an enormous amount left for renters in need. The U.S. Treasury recently disclosed that just $1.5 billion in rental aid was paid out in June — though that was more than in the previous three months combined.

Officials say renters have been slow to apply for the money. Here's how to get some if you can't pay your rent, and are probably struggling with debt and your other bills.

Distribution and applications have been sluggish

Treasury building

The Treasury acknowledges that the distribution of funds has so far been too slow.

"There is still much further work to do to ensure tenants and landlords take advantage of the historic funding available to help cover rent, utilities, and other housing costs and keep people in their homes," the department said in a July 21 news release.

Part of the reason the rental aid is being distributed so slowly is that it's being administered by over 400 local and state agencies, each with different staffing levels, technology and know-how. It's hard to expect the same level of response from a well-funded agency in a big city as from an underfunded one in a rural area.

But renters also are playing a role in the program’s tepid performance — they’re not exactly rushing to take advantage of it. The Census Bureau calculated that about 7 million households were behind on rent as of May 24. But from April to June, only 550,000 people had applied for and received rental assistance.

What help is available for renters?

Congress approved emergency rental aid in two stages: $25 billion as part of a pandemic stimulus bill that passed in December, and another $21.6 billion in the $1.9 trillion COVID rescue bill President Joe Biden signed in mid-March.

“The Treasury [emergency rental assistance] program includes an unprecedented amount of funding for emergency rental assistance to help renters stay stably housed," says the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The coalition's website is maintaining a list of more than 480 rental assistance programs that are open across the country to help get the federal money to people who need it.

Funding is available for renters who are struggling to pay rent or utilities because of the pandemic. If that describes the bind you're in, you should be eligible for help.

What rental assistance looks like in some states

Aleksandr Grechanyuk/Shutterstock

The slow rollout hasn’t been universal. Some states have made more headway than others in keeping roofs over renters' heads.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority, which is administering $1.5 billion in rental assistance statewide, distributed nothing to renters in May. In June, it was the second-highest provider of assistance in the country, the Treasury reports.

Eligible tenants and landlords in Illinois can apply for one-time grants of up to $25,000 to cover a maximum 15 months of missed rent from June 2020 to August 2021.

“The Illinois Rental Assistance Program is a testament to how good government can make a life-changing difference for people when our dollars follow our values,” Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker said while announcing details of the program.

In Texas, funding is covering unpaid rent and utilities going as far back as March 13, 2020. The state's program also is providing assistance for rent and utility costs that are current or past due, plus up to two months of future rent and utilities. The aid available in Texas caps out at $4,600 per month.

With the help of two nonprofit agencies, the Houston metro area has become home to one of the country’s most successful emergency rental assistance efforts. More than $137 million has been distributed to over 36,000 eligible renters.

How to qualify for rental aid money

To be eligible for assistance, at least one member of your household must qualify for unemployment benefits or be willing to state in writing that the pandemic has been responsible for lost income or surging expenses that have made it difficult to pay rent.

You’ll also have to prove, through either a past-due utility or rent notice, that you’re at risk of homelessness. There's an income component, too: You must have earned less than 80% of your community’s median income in 2020.

Renters who qualify can get up to 18 months of assistance to cover both missed and future rent.

The Treasury has told local agencies that they should offer the money directly to renters, rather than going first to landlords. The department also has guided the local agencies to halt evictions of tenants for nonpayment of rent during the months they receive financial assistance.

How to carve out some breathing room on your own

Mother and daughter sitting on a mattress looking sad
Sean Bolt / Shutterstock

The government’s rental assistance effort will be a game-changer for many renters. But there are other ways you can ease the financial burden the pandemic strapped to your back.

If you’ve had to lean on your credit cards or other high-interest debt to cover your purchases during the pandemic, the interest charges will be stalking you and your budget for months. By rolling your balances into a lower-interest debt consolidation loan, you can pay off your debt more quickly and affordably.

You also might look into reducing your insurance costs. A little comparison shopping could help you save hundreds per year on car insurance.

And even though you're strapped for cash, it can be surprisingly easy to squeeze a little extra income out of the white-hot stock market. A popular app lets you invest in a diversified portfolio using just "spare change" from everyday purchases.

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