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Federal rent money finally got to renters, and eviction filings haven't gone up

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

The U.S. launched the biggest rental assistance program in history over the past year. During the pandemic, more than twice as many Americans as usual fell behind on rent, many after losing their jobs. So Congress sent $47 billion to help people pay their back rent and avoid eviction. OK, but did it work? NPR's Chris Arnold has been following the effort and has this report.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: There was a lot of worry that this year would see a catastrophic wave of evictions, with millions of families displaced from their homes. Congress approved that historic pile of money way back a year ago last December, but for the first half of the year, almost none of it was getting to people.

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MEHRAN MOSSADDAD: I can't sleep. I've got the shakes.

ARNOLD: That was Mehran Mossaddad back in June. He's a single dad living near Atlanta, and he had to stop driving Uber because he couldn't leave his 10-year-old daughter home alone doing remote school. So he fell behind on rent. He should have qualified for that help from Congress. He applied. But for months, he couldn't get it.

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MOSSADDAD: I get panic attacks not knowing what's in store for us. I have to take care of my daughter.

ARNOLD: What was happening was hundreds of state and local programs had to be set up to distribute the federal money, but they ran into all kinds of problems. Many programs put unnecessary restrictions in place. They asked for way too many documents. We spoke to Chris Winston with South Carolina's housing agency. He says at first, it seemed simple enough to require that renters show, for example, that they have a lease. But...

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CHRIS WINSTON: We have a lot of folks who rent from Jimmy, this house or this apartment or this mobile home on some land. There's no signed arrangement. There's no signed agreement.

ARNOLD: So over just things like that, almost nobody could qualify for the help. A month into South Carolina's program, Winston says they had handed out money to only, like, 10 families - 10.

WINSTON: That's when we realized how many applications were being held up because of documentation.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, people were falling further behind on rent.

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AKIRA JOHNSON: They filed an eviction on me. They knocked on my door with the eviction paper.

ARNOLD: Akira Johnson (ph) is a single mom we talked to in Columbia, S.C. Her landlord refused to participate with the local rental assistance program. And the program for months refused to cut checks directly to renters when that happened. So she was stuck and really worried about her kids.

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JOHNSON: I feel like if we did lose the place, I would probably have to send them to their grandmother's. That's, like, separating from them.

ARNOLD: But then things started to change. The Treasury Department and housing groups were basically begging these programs to get rid of the red tape and streamline things, and many did. In June, July, August, September, more and more people got help. Mossaddad and Johnson both did, and they're back working again. We checked in with Johnson just the other day.

JOHNSON: I'm still at my home. I did extend my lease for six months. The kids are great. They're beautiful. They're excited about Christmas.

ARNOLD: Mossaddad says he and his daughter are doing well, too. He still can't make as much money driving Uber as normal, but it's enough to scrape by.

MOSSADDAD: Everything's good. I mean, in comparison, my God, where we were last year, things are - you know, have a little sense of normalcy again.

ARNOLD: Altogether, nationwide, somewhere around 3 million people have now had their back rent paid.

PETER HEPBURN: We don't see a giant increase in evictions.

ARNOLD: Peter Hepburn is a researcher at Princeton University's Eviction Lab. He says there was no tsunami of evictions. Even after the Supreme Court struck down a federal eviction moratorium in August, eviction filings have stayed below normal levels. Some states like New York, New Jersey, Texas have now distributed almost all of their share of the federal money. And Hepburn hopes that these programs that have been set up and that are working well can keep getting some funding going forward to prevent evictions even after the pandemic.

HEPBURN: As we start to move back toward normal, we don't need to accept a status quo in which 3.7 million eviction cases are filed every year. Perhaps there's space here to be doing better.

ARNOLD: But before we get there, things are not back to normal yet. Not all these programs are working well. Some haven't even used anywhere near the amount of money that they got from Congress. Meanwhile, millions of people are still behind on rent, and they're still waiting for that help.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.