Why $46 Billion Couldn’t Forestall an Eviction Disaster

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Over the past few months, the White House and Treasury Department have attempted to resolve the program’s problems by repeatedly revising the guidelines to allow tenants to receive payouts with a minimum of paperwork while enlisting state judges and even law students to help tenants delay or prevent their eviction.

Gene Sperling, who is responsible for overseeing pandemic relief programs for President Biden, estimates that despite the recent shortcomings in rental assistance, around 40 percent of at-risk tenants in the country either receive help or are temporarily protected from eviction by state and local moratoriums .

“If underperforming states and communities don’t gain momentum, there will be a significant and painful void for hundreds of thousands of families,” said Sperling. “That is unacceptable and so we are still pushing as hard as possible.”

No government has previously played a similar role in trying to stop evictions that are being overseen by state courts.

The federal government’s primary rental grant is the Section 8 Voucher Program, which pays private landlords and nonprofit groups the difference between the market price and the amount a renter can pay. Funding has stagnated for decades, and waiting lists of up to 10 years are not uncommon in many cities.

“We have a shortage of rental housing, a long-term decline in affordability, and costly tenants have very little buffer to set aside money for a rainy day,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy New York University. “The pandemic has only underscored the need for an ongoing federal emergency rental program.”

But Section 8, with its arduous certification requirements, did not provide a viable template for the new emergency funds. When the virus struck – and the money started to rain – the federal government, states and municipalities essentially had to invent a completely new system, a process that would otherwise have taken years of trial and error.