âNo one is this incompetent. Nobody, âsaid Andreanecia Morris, executive director of affordable housing group HousingNOLA in Louisiana. âAt the end of the day, it’s a systemic bias – it’s anti-black racism, an anti-tenant bias, an anti-poor bias. â¦ There is no other explanation for this level of incompetence.
The fight to protect tenants is now largely a state and local issue after Thursday’s Supreme Court decision to suspend the federal eviction ban. Democrats in Congress are unlikely to be able to muster voices to craft their own moratorium on evictions, and the Biden administration is focused on pressuring governors and mayors to protect tenants and landlords. State and local agencies that were slow to distribute the money now face the prospect of the federal government clawing back the unused funds in late September, which could make matters worse.
In response to the growing backlash, local officials accused the federal government of not making it clear they can relax the demands on requests. They say setting up aid distribution programs from scratch has been a huge struggle. They reject claims that bottlenecks are the result of anti-poor bias.
“State housing agencies exist to provide housing stability for low-income people,” said Stockton Williams, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. âTo the extent that some programs had rules in place that made it a challenge, it was because program administrators wanted to make sure they were following the rules.
The Treasury Department, which is responsible for overseeing the aid, intervened this week to tell local officials they could significantly relax the requirements by relying on applicants’ self-attestations regarding their income and financial hardship, rather than having to check the supporting documents.
Williams said the guidelines had “changed the game” after state housing officials urged the Treasury for months to clarify to what extent they would need to justify information provided by aid seekers.
Fraud “is a real risk, and it’s a balancing act,” he said.
Just over 8 million people said they were not caught up with rent in the most recent US Census Bureau survey, conducted August 4-16. Among them, around 3.5 million tenants said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to be evicted in the next two months.
Only six states and the District of Columbia currently have their own eviction bans, while 10 other states have adopted some form of tenant protection when distributing aid. In unprotected states, courts are likely to be inundated with eviction cases in the coming weeks.
In Georgia, the website for applying for the state assistance program requires tenants to provide income documents for each adult in a household, an overdue rent notice or utility bill, and documents showing loss of income or proof that they are eligible for unemployment benefits.
The state also requests a paper trail of rent payments, which is problematic for low-income tenants who pay cash, said Bambie Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of Georgia Advancing Communities Together Inc. She also said that tenants often do not have copies of their current leases.
âI think it stems from widespread mistrust of the poor, to be brutally honest,â Hayes-Brown said.
As of July 31, Georgia had distributed only about 3.6% of its allocation of $ 552.3 million from the initial tranche of federal rent assistance funds, according to the Treasury Department. More than 216,000 Georgian tenants said they were behind on rent in the last census survey, and over 76,000 of them said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to be deported within the next two months.
Georgia Department of Community Affairs spokesperson Kaley Volkmann said the state’s rental assistance program does not include documentation requirements beyond what the federal government has. mandated.
Volkmann said the agency’s goal was to provide every resident of Georgia with the opportunity to access safe and affordable housing “regardless of their community or income.”
Affordable housing advocates say local officials have been cautious for fear of being scammed. Morris, with HousingNOLA in Louisiana, said the mindset among program administrators was, âWe have to make sure they don’t get too much, they don’t steal, they don’t get. that money and don’t buy Cadillac with it.
Morris argues that requests for state aid are too complex and lack options for non-English speakers.
Louisiana officials have acknowledged their concerns about the speed of aid delivery. The state has approved more than $ 27 million – about 11% of its $ 249 million allocation – for tenants and landlords and has committed about $ 86 million to local governments, according to Louisiana Gov. John’s office. Bel Edwards, a Democrat. More than 108,000 of the 174,000 Louisianans who reported being behind on rent earlier this month said they would likely face eviction within the next two months, according to the Census Bureau.
The majority of Louisiana’s funding went to households earning less than 30% of the average median income and to applicants who identified themselves as black, said Edwards spokeswoman Shauna Sanford, who dismissed the claims of bias.
âWhile we have increased the pace considerably since the start of the program, we know there is more to do,â said Sanford.
Similar concerns have arisen in New York, which has been one of the main laggards in the distribution of rent subsidies. New York had distributed about 0.3% of its initial allocation of $ 801 million at the end of July, the Treasury said this week. More than 628,000 renters in the state said they were behind on rent in early August, and more than 194,000 said they would likely face eviction in the next two months.
A dozen housing groups at the start of the month then said-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a letter that it was a âmoral and public health imperativeâ for the state to improve its application portal and outreach efforts. They warned that the document upload function on the application site was frequently down, preventing individuals from providing the documents needed to complete requests for assistance.
âThere is such a focus on fraud prevention, and these are emergency funds, and I don’t think the state government really gets it,â said Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, which signed the letter to Cuomo.
The groups argued that it is particularly urgent for New York to speed up the release of funds as they could be clawed back by Washington after September. The treasury can reallocate funds from states and localities that have distributed less than 65% of the aid granted to them as of September 30.
Michael Hein, commissioner for the New York Department of Aid, told lawmakers in a hearing on Aug. 19 that the state has reached the threshold, given the money that has been tentatively approved for households .
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a statement that the state “can and must do a better job of getting this aid into the hands of New Yorkers who may face evictions.”