Receiving Emergency Rental Assistance Associated with Lower Rental Arrears and Rent-Related Debt and Reduced Frequency of Anxiety

A study published in the Russel Sage Foundation of Social Sciences, “COVID-19 and Emergency Rental Assistance: Impact on Rent Arrears, Debt, and the Well-Being of Renters in Philadelphia,” examines the impact of Philadelphia’s phase 1 COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program on households’ rent arrears, rent-related debt, frequency of worrying, food consumption, and medical spending. The authors find that receiving emergency rental assistance was associated with lower rental arrears, a lower probability of having rent-related debt, and a lower probability of experiencing frequent debilitating anxiety. However, emergency rental assistance did not reduce the trade-offs some households made to afford rent, such as reducing food consumption and medical spending. The authors note that, while emergency rental assistance was crucial, pandemic response programs were not designed to address the long-standing housing crisis.

The phase 1 CERA program utilized supplemental Community Development Block Grant funding authorized by the CARES Act (CDBG-CV). Household eligibility requirements included: being a current renter in Philadelphia, having a valid lease, losing income because of COVID-19, and having an income at 50% or less than the area median income. Landlords also had to participate in the program. CERA provided eligible households assistance for up to three consecutive months or up to $2,500. Due to the overwhelming number of applicants, the city conducted a randomized lottery to determine which households would receive assistance. Recipient households were notified if they were selected in early June 2020, at which point the city began processing payments.

Researchers used data from two surveys administered to CERA applicants. The baseline survey was embedded in the emergency rental assistance application administered in May 2020, and the second survey was administered in March 2021. Both surveys dealt with a range of topics including current and past housing situations, employment history, finances, childcare, and general mental health. These data were then combined with administrative data from the City of Philadelphia which included demographic information and whether a household received assistance through CERA. There were 594 respondents with data from the baseline survey, follow-up survey, and administrative records. Of those respondents, 42% received assistance and 58% did not receive assistance.

Researchers used statistical modeling to examine the effect of receiving rental assistance on a tenant’s probability of being behind on rent at the time of the follow-up survey. They found that tenants who received rental assistance were less likely to owe back rent, and that receipt of CERA funds was associated with a $525 decrease in the amount of rent owed. Households that received rental assistance were also 9% less likely to borrow money to cover rent.

Receiving CERA was associated with tenants reporting less frequent uncontrollable worrying. Researchers asked respondents “Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by not being able to stop or control worrying?” Responses included: “not at all,” “several days,” “more than half the days,” or “nearly every day.” Compared to tenants who did not receive assistance, tenants receiving CERA were 4% more likely to report “not at all” and 5% more likely to report “several days.” Receiving CERA was also associated with a 2% decrease in the likelihood of reporting “more than half the days” and a 6% decrease in the likelihood of reporting “nearly every day.” Many respondents reported cutting back on food (39.2%) or medical expenses (23.1%) to make ends meet during the pandemic. Receiving CERA did not impact whether respondents cut back on these necessities.

This study only considers phase 1 of Philadelphia’s emergency rental assistance program. The researchers note that other phases (such as the U.S. Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance program) provided tenants with a larger amount of assistance and therefore may be associated with even greater positive effects. However, many households, particularly low-income households, experienced financial precarity prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While essential, pandemic era programs were not designed to address long-standing challenges of housing affordability.

Read “COVID-19 and Emergency Rental Assistance: Impact on Rent Arrears, Debt, and the Well-Being of Renters in Philadelphia at: