New research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiative at Penn (HIP) offers a descriptive analysis of the experience of applicants to California’s Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black households, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander households, American Indian households, and households with children were more likely to submit applications to California’s ERA program. Applicants identified limited internet access, housing and economic vulnerability, limited documentation of income loss, and limited documentation of tenancy as the most common barriers faced during the application process. Researchers found that facing multiple barriers had a compounding effect on applicant outcomes: applicants facing more barriers were less likely to be approved for assistance and more likely to be denied.
Researchers used tenant-level application data from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) as well as publicly available census data to summarize the characteristics of California ERA applicants. By April 24, 2022, California’s ERA program had received approximately 591,000 completed applications. Of these applications, 43% had been approved for rental assistance and 38% were pending. Approximately 40% of households approved for rental relief had also submitted a recertification for additional funding. The typical (median) recipient household received $8,700 in rental assistance. Black households, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander households, American Indian households, and households with children were more likely to apply for and receive assistance from California’s ERA program than other renter populations. California’s ERA program also received nearly 210,000 incomplete applications, suggesting that many households were unable to complete their applications due to barriers they faced during the application process.
Between March 15 and October 12, 2021, researchers worked with California HCD to administer a survey of applicants after they submitted their ERA applications. One in four applications submitted during this time had a corresponding survey response. The typical surveyed applicant owed five months of rent and $5,400 in rental arrears. One in five of survey respondents (22%) reported being more than a year behind on rent when they applied for rental assistance. Over two-thirds of respondents who reported being behind on rent had paid at least a quarter of their rent over the past three months. Approximately 57% of respondents indicated they had borrowed money to help pay for rent prior to applying for rental assistance; on average, respondents borrowed $3,307 to help pay for rent. Further, one in five respondents reported they had experienced some level of extreme instability or homelessness since the start of the pandemic.
Researchers also examined the impact of application barriers on approval and denial rates for ERA. Researchers found that limited internet access was the most common barrier, affecting 29% of survey participants. Respondents with limited internet access were slightly less likely to be approved for assistance compared to survey participants overall (63% vs. 68%). Survey participants also commonly identified living in a low-income or high-poverty area (28%) or recent experience with homelessness (20%) as barriers. Participants living in a low-income or high-poverty area were slightly more likely to be approved (71%), while participants with recent experiences with homelessness were less likely to be approved (60%). Though proof of tenancy was identified as a barrier by only 15% of survey participants, it was associated with a 14-percentage point reduction in approval rates. Multiple barriers had a compounding effect on applicants’ approval rates: the more barriers applicants faced, the less likely they were to be approved for emergency rental assistance. Researchers further noted that the effect of barriers is likely to be even more pronounced, as tenants who faced the greatest struggles with the application process may not have successfully accessed their applications in the first place and would thus not have received a survey.
Read the report here.