Many Emergency Rental Assistance Programs Aim to Prevent Homelessness but Need Improvements to Do So

New research published in Housing Policy Debate, Can Emergency Rental Assistance Be Designed to Prevent Homelessness? Learning from Emergency Rental Assistance Programs,” finds that while 89% of emergency rental assistance programs aimed to prevent homelessness, many programs were not easily accessible to those most likely to face homelessness. The research uses data from surveys of program administrators and is the product of collaboration between NLIHC, the Housing Initiative at Penn, and the NYU Furman Center.

The authors use data from two national surveys conducted with emergency rental assistance administrators in 2020 and 2021. The 2020 survey was distributed to administrators of programs funded by the “CARES Act,” and the 2021 survey was distributed to administrators of programs operating under the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance program, funded by the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021” and the “American Rescue Plan Act.” The survey data was supplemented with data from interviews with 15 program administrators.

In both 2020 and 2021, preventing homelessness and evictions were the two most commonly selected program goals among survey respondents. The percent of administrators who identified preventing homelessness as a program goal was 87% in 2020 and 89% in 2021. Despite these stated goals, programs that intended to prevent homelessness were no more likely to provide additional flexibilities for applicants, like direct-to-tenant assistance or self-attestation of income, than programs that did not state this goal. Some administrators indicated that even though a primary goal was preventing homelessness, they designed their program to serve households less likely to be at immediate risk of homelessness, because programs and funding to serve people who were imminently or currently homeless already existed.

Programs used a variety of outreach methods to reach potentially eligible applicants, including social media, radio, newspapers, and partnerships with community-based organizations. However, these methods are unlikely to reach those most imminently at risk of homelessness or currently experiencing homelessness. Several administrators noted that their typical outreach methods are more targeted toward people at risk of homelessness, such as tabling at food banks or holding open office hours, but these methods were limited due to the pandemic. More targeted outreach toward at-risk households did increase between 2020 and 2021, with the percent of programs conducting outreach at housing courts growing from 27% to 63%. Outreach activities at housing courts included sending information about rental assistance to tenants who experienced an eviction filing and providing rental assistance as a part of court mediation programs.

Programs’ application requirements were often not designed to be accessible to households with the greatest risks of homelessness, either. While many programs offered more application flexibilities over time, barriers remained for those experiencing homelessness. Between 2020 and 2021, for example, the percent of programs allowing self-attestation of COVID-19-hardship increased from 65% to 100%. In 2021, three-quarters of programs also allowed self-attestation for income. Only 43% of programs allowed for self-attestation of tenancy without a current lease, however, which would mean doubled-up households or households in informal living arrangements could not prove eligibility. If programs intend to serve households at imminent risk of homelessness, they should offer documentation alternatives for requirements like proof of tenancy that are burdensome or impossible for households at risk of homelessness to submit.

The research finds that across multiple program areas, programs implemented limited efforts to reach and serve people at imminent risk of homelessness. Even so, emergency rental assistance programs likely helped meet other critical goals, like ensuring households had enough money to pay for necessities other than housing and preventing households from experiencing deep rental debt.

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