The Supreme Court struck down a federal moratorium on evictions Thursday, putting more pressure on the Biden administration to wake up a rental assistance program that has so far failed to distribute billions in aid.
Congress allocated $46 billion for renters as part of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, but as of July 31, the state and local governments tasked with disbursing the money had spent only $5.1 billion, according to the latest numbers from the Treasury Department.
So far, the program has reached 984,000 households with hundreds of thousands more “in the pipeline,” Treasury said Thursday. States, cities and counties did not significantly ramp up the distribution of aid in the last month. Millions of people face eviction, with fewer renters caught up on payments compared to this time in 2019.
The Biden administration has urged local governments to drop burdensome paperwork requirements that experts say are a prime reason so few renters have received assistance. This week, the Treasury Department told program administrators they should let applicants “self-attest” to their financial hardship and housing instability, instead of asking them to scrounge up pay stubs, bank statements or court documents.
Linda Ireland of Boynton Beach, Florida, has been in a paperwork jam since she applied for rental assistance two months ago. As part of her application, she submitted her lease agreement, unemployment insurance documents, her driver’s license, a photo of her food assistance card, and a letter from her landlord stating how much rent she owes.
But the Palm Beach County Community Services Department rejected her application, she said, because her lease agreement is from 2018. She doesn’t have a newer one because she lives in a mobile home, not an apartment.
“I rent the land, so I don’t have a lease to sign every year,” Ireland told HuffPost. “All I have is papers saying my lot rent is going to go up.”
Ireland, 61, worked as a cashier at an arcade until the pandemic hit, but hasn’t received steady unemployment income since then. Florida’s notoriously dysfunctional state workforce agency would halt her unemployment benefits for months at a time, she said, and it didn’t help when the state canceled federal benefits, dropping her weekly payment from $410 to $110.
Ireland said she’s starting a new job at a call center on Monday. She’ll have a stable income, but she’s still behind on rent by more than $7,000.
“I’m in a position where I will be able to pay rent, but I won’t get a paycheck for four weeks,” she said.
The dissenting justices on the Supreme Court argued this week that renters should get more time. Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion that the justices who’d previously supported ending the moratorium could point to declining caseloads as evidence the pandemic was winding down.
“These predictions have proved tragically untrue,” Breyer wrote. “Today they show just how little we may presume to know about the course of this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, landlords, who have lost billions in unpaid rent, are pouncing on evictions. In many cities, eviction proceedings have already been underway in spite of the moratorium, as landlords seized on lease violations that weren’t covered by the moratorium.
“During the pandemic, tenants have been some of the most vulnerable people out there, especially in a context where our homes were what we were told were the ultimate protection for us,” said Tara Raghuveer, a tenant organizer and national housing advocate based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Raghuveer said she doesn’t believe members of Congress actually know the extent of the crisis, citing the false equivalence made between the plight of renters and the financial losses incurred by landlords. She wants Congress to pass an eviction moratorium and hold hearings with tenants who have been evicted after struggling to get rental assistance.
“Until recently, I think members of Congress felt really good about passing all this rental assistance ― they were patting themselves on the back,” Raghuveer said. “Those moderate Democrats who call themselves problem solvers, and who stand in the way of an eviction moratorium being legislated through Congress, go to sleep at night thinking they are on the side of truth, and they’re not.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in early August to protest Congress’ and the administration’s inaction on evictions, is once again urging lawmakers to pass a law to protect renters during the pandemic. Bush successfully got the Biden administration to act earlier this month.
“We are in an unprecedented and ongoing crisis that demands compassionate solutions that center the needs of the people and communities most in need of our help,” Bush said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) balked at holding a vote on an extension of the moratorium last month, most likely because Democrats didn’t have enough votes to approve it.
Dwain Wall, 63, applied for rental assistance in April and is still waiting. Wall lives in Palm Springs, California, and owns a company that charters music-themed cruises for large groups. The pandemic decimated the cruise industry in 2020, and it is only now beginning to return to normal. Wall said he’s talking to his former clients but hasn’t made any money yet.
Meanwhile, he’s receiving weekly emails that say “Your application has been received by our team.” Wall said his landlord is very understanding, but that he’s nevertheless told Wall he’ll be evicted as soon as legally possible. The experience has given him a new perspective on the social safety net in the U.S.
“It’s very difficult to even ask for help, but when you do ask, it’s more frustrating when it seems like there is no help,” he said. “I never thought I would be in this situation in my life. I never accepted a dime from any government source.”
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