Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Congress has approved over $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance. That money is meant to help millions of renters catch up on back-rent owed, keep their payments current, and even help with utilities. But there’s a big problem. That money isn’t getting into the hands of those who need it. In fact, only $5.1 billion—just 10 percent—of the funds have been distributed according to a U.S. Treasury Department report in late August.
“Imagine you land a new job, but your first paycheck contains only 10 percent of your salary. You would be outraged,” explains Howard Dvorkin, CPA and Chairman of Debt.com. “Well, many people—including myself—are outraged that federal and local governments have done such a poor job getting money into the pockets of people who need it most.”
Fortunately for renters staring down the September 31st deadline when the CDC ban on evictions will finally expire, there is help available. It’s help that even the Treasury Department acknowledges is necessary to get this money out to renters. It comes from nonprofit housing counseling agencies.
Why the government needs assistance with an assistance program
The government doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to providing relief efficiently during a crisis. Think stimulus checks. Many Americans are still looking for information on where their missing stimulus payments are and when they’ll finally arrive. And that is a relief effort being handled between just a few federal agencies.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) is even worse. It’s more like the vaccine rollout. The federal government through the U.S. Department of Treasury is allocating portions of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance to state and local governments. So, it’s up to states, counties, and municipal governments to come up with their own programs to get the funds that they’ve been allocated out.
The result is the same as people camping out to get vaccines and trying to get scheduled for appointments on multiple websites that are constantly crashing. Renters have no idea where to go and even when they find resources, they’re left to wait for weeks and months with no information.
“No one doubts that federal and local governments have the best intentions, but unfortunately, they have a history of inadequate execution—and that’s in the best of times,” Dvorkin says. “During a pandemic, when time is short and resources are stretched, it has gotten worse. While the government can certainly help you, it’s not wise to solely depend on it.”
No two rental assistance applications are alike
Even in the same state and local area, renters who live a few miles away from each other can have vastly different experiences when applying for rental assistance.
Take Florida, for example. Florida has a rental assistance program that you can apply to through OurFlorida.com. However, if you live in Broward County in South Florida, the county has a separate program where you apply. But if you live in the City of Fort Lauderdale in Broward County, then the city has its own program.
All the applications are different, and they all have different requirements. What’s more, residents of the City of Fort Lauderdale can’t apply through the Broward County program because they have their own.
It’s an issue that HUD-certified housing counselor Barry Rothman understands firsthand. The housing counseling agency that he leads at Consolidated Credit is helping people apply for the Broward program and they’re overseeing the City of Fort Lauderdale program directly.
“People are understandably frustrated,” Rothman says. “And providing the information needed to get your application approved isn’t straightforward, especially when it comes to defining the hardship that led you to need assistance. It’s a requirement on almost every rental assistance application nationwide, but the documentation you need to demonstrate the hardship can vary widely from one program to the next.”
How housing counseling agencies help with emergency rental assistance
Rothman’s housing counseling team is currently helping Broward residents apply for the county program. Like many ERAPs, Broward’s program provides:
- Up to 12 months of past-due rent payments
- Up to 3 months of future rent payments
- Up to 12 months of past-due utility payments
However, Broward County has struggled to get applications approved to get the funds out. Rothman’s team goes through the application with each renter that contacts them to help them fill out the application in the best way possible to get approved. They also help them gather the documentation necessary to prove their case.
But Rothman says the help his team and other housing counseling teams nationwide goes beyond that. Since each of these organizations is local, they know all the local programs and organizations that may offer additional help.
ERAP is one resource, but renters may need more
“We were working with a woman who had applied for rental assistance and had actually gotten money already for her current apartment from the Broward program and everything had gone smoothly,” Rothman explains. “The problem was that even though she’d been approved for rent through December, her landlord didn’t want it. Her lease ends at the end of September and he wants her out.”
It’s worth noting here that the CDC eviction ban does not prohibit landlords from ending people’s leases at the assigned time. It only provides protection against eviction due to nonpayment. So, in this case, even if the CDC extends the ban, it won’t help this renter.
“So now this renter needs the future rental assistance money for getting into a new apartment,” Rothman continues. “But that means she basically will need to start her application from scratch. That will take time.
“But because we had talked about her situation and our organization works with other nonprofits in the area, I was able to help her find a solution while she waits for her application to process,” he explains. “Her husband is a Veteran, so I referred her to Mission United in Broward County, which is also helping Veterans who need rental assistance.”
This situation is not unique. In fact, the same Treasury report that outlines where they are in distributing funds also says that state and local governments can enter into partnerships with nonprofits to provide assistance while a renter’s application is being processed.
Finding a housing counselor to help you
Since housing counseling agencies are only approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to operate locally, Rothman’s team can only help residents in South Florida.
If you live in Florida and need rental assistance, call 1-800-204-0557 for rental assistance.
For renters outside of Florida, Rothman says there are housing counseling agencies everywhere that can provide the same kind of localized support.
“People sometimes think that housing counselors are just there to help homeowners, but rental assistance is something our organizations have always been able to provide,” Rothman says. “And now more than ever rental counseling can connect you with the resources you need to get through the hardship you’re facing. Counselors in your area will know all the ERAP programs you may be eligible for, as well as other nonprofit organizations that may be able to assist you in the meantime.”
HUD provides an official list of approved housing counseling agencies, so you can find agencies in your state. Or, even easier, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a helpful tool where you can search for a housing counselor based on your zip code.
Assistance beyond rent
If you’re struggling with rent and utilities, then chances are good that you’re also overextended with credit card debt. The good news is that many nonprofits approved by HUD to offer housing counseling also provide credit counseling.
Once you get your rent and utilities under control, it makes sense to continue working with the same nonprofit to find a solution for your debt. This will help you get fully back on your feet, so you can finally start moving forward with your life.
Don’t trust just anyone to help you, even if you’re desperate
The CFPB has also recently issued a warning for consumers to watch out for rental assistance scams. As with so many programs during the pandemic—from stimulus checks to testing sites—scammers are using the opportunity to steal people’s personal information.
Renters are warned to watch out for would-be rental assisters that ask for financial information to process your emergency rental application. No program nationwide requires you to provide bank account information to begin the application process. They also do not charge any upfront fees to process your application. Applying for rental assistance anywhere in the country is free.
The CFPB encourages renters to work only with approved and accredited organizations. You can also use their Find Rental Assistance Tool so you are aware of the programs available in your area.
“While the government is trustworthy it’s not efficient,” Debt.com chairman Howard Dvorkin says, “but there are scammers out there who are untrustworthy and very efficient. So, you must keep your senses keen. Most of us get a tingle in our gut when someone is trying to rip us off, but we want to believe it so badly, we ignore the signs. Don’t ignore your feelings and use your head. Never agree to anything in the moment, and if you’re pressured to make an immediate decision, that’s all the evidence you need that you’re about to be scammed.”
Article last modified on September 2, 2021. Published by Debt.com, LLC