Housing Counseling Supports Renters in Crisis

A recent article by the Urban Institute, “Housing Counseling to Support Renters in Crisis,” found that as demand for rental counseling increased during the pandemic, counseling agencies pivoted away from services focused mainly on homeownership to expand or adapt services for renters, while also shifting from in-person to virtual service. These changes required agencies to move rapidly on policies aimed at renters’ housing stabilization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a precarious situation for many renters. According to one estimate, nearly 20% of renters could not pay at least some part of their rent in 2021. Housing counseling is a tool that can help renters and landlords navigate debt and housing instability. Housing counseling for homeowners helps equip consumers to find, finance, rent, and maintain a home, while rental counseling focuses on budgeting and understanding affordable rental costs, making sound rental housing decisions, understanding tenant rights and responsibilities, managing rental payments, and navigating financial shocks. Some organizations help renters find and apply for assistance programs, connect with legal services, or negotiate payment plans with landlords. However, current rental needs surpass the capacity of most counseling agencies. Currently, only 58% of the 1,560 HUD-approved housing counseling agencies appear to offer rental counseling. Housing counseling has the potential to help those facing housing and financial instability during and after the pandemic.

This brief explores the ways housing counseling has responded to the needs of renters in crisis and the resources required to strengthen counseling services. Based on interviews with 18 leaders from eight housing organizations about their experiences with housing counseling during the pandemic, the researchers found that virtual counseling services have provided agencies with more flexibility to assist renters during the pandemic. The shift from in-person counseling to remote services has provided many benefits to agencies and renters, like the reduction in time spent on engaging with services and the ability to cover a larger geographic area. However, there are equity challenges with virtual services. Limited access to technology, discomfort with remote services, and a lack of language- or culturally appropriate services may limit access to services for groups affected by COVID-19.

The researchers found that renters need more direct rental assistance and support to meet basic needs. Many counselors noted that compared to homeowners, renters have fewer assets, savings and resources. When asked what renters needed most during the ongoing crisis, providers pointed to direct rent, financial, or cash assistance and legal assistance. Counselors need increased access to information about available rental assistance and legal expertise to help renters find resources. To serve their clients, counselors need better tracking of rental assistance programs, direct assistance resources, court diversion services, eviction services, and more information about tenants’ rights.

Providers face capacity and funding constraints. Housing counseling providers do not currently have the expertise or staff needed to meet renters’ needs. Providers commented that HUD’s requirements for housing counseling funding put unwarranted restrictions on how services could be provided. For example, HUD’s counseling framework requires counselors to create a budget and housing affordability analysis with clients, which is inappropriate for clients who are in a financial crisis due to the pandemic. Making the HUD housing counseling funding more flexible would better support counseling agencies during this national crisis. Finally, landlords – especially small, “mom and pop” landlords – are often absent from rental counseling services. Housing counseling could help landlords navigate debt, preserve their credit or avoid foreclosure.

The housing counseling system is a promising framework for supporting renters in crisis, but new resources, approaches and partnerships are required.  More research needs to be done to understand the extent to which counseling services are reaching marginalized populations and vulnerable renters.

Read the full article at: https://urbn.is/3n9YZFG