Rental Assistance Is Moving Slowly As End Of Eviction Moratorium Looms A federal moratorium on evictions ends next week. But $50 billion from Congress to help Americans behind on rent isn't reaching many who need it. One problem: local rules that deny people the help.

Georgia County Tried To Help Everyone Facing Eviction. Now A Crisis Looms

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A federal moratorium on evictions ends next week. Congress allocated billions of dollars to help Americans who are facing eviction, but a lot of that money is not reaching them. To understand why, NPR's Chris Arnold focused on a county in Georgia. Here's Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Back around the start of the year, Michael Thurmond had a problem. He's the top elected official in DeKalb County, Ga. Congress had approved about $50 billion in money to help people catch up and pay rent to avoid eviction. But Thurmond worried that his county wouldn't get enough money to help everybody.

MICHAEL THURMOND: What do I say to the family who is the first in line after all the money has run out?

ARNOLD: So he and county officials decided to impose limits. For one, the county would only pay 60% of someone's back rent. The landlord would have to just absorb the loss beyond that, or the renter would have to come up with the difference or something in between.

THURMOND: Either you can help a smaller number of people by providing them great assistance, or you help a larger number of people by providing them with less assistance. And so we took the position that we should help as many families as possible.

ARNOLD: OK, that might sound reasonable, but that has not been the way things have played out. The county's portal for renters to apply for the money went live back in February.

SAFIYA KITWANA: I was probably one of the first people that submitted that application.

ARNOLD: Safiya Kitwana is a single mom with two teenage kids living in Lithonia, Ga. She lost her call center job when COVID cases were spiking last winter. Finding work again has been hard - she has a back injury and needs a desk job. And after she applied for the rental assistance money, she got no response.

KITWANA: I submitted my application at least four different times, and nobody got back to me.

ARNOLD: Around the country, many states and counties had to set up online systems for rental assistance for the first time. Many of them crashed. In DeKalb, the system got hacked. Some of the programs got bogged down with bureaucratic rules, and all of that's been delaying people getting help. In fact, in DeKalb County, 93% of the money that it's been allocated hasn't reached anybody. Meanwhile, for Kitwana, months have gone by and she's fallen farther behind. The landlord sticks notes with a big red Sharpie marker on her door, telling her she's facing eviction and now owes upwards of $13,000.

KITWANA: When they leave the note by the door, my kids, like, they're wondering, Mommy - what we're going to do. And I don't have answers for them.

ARNOLD: Kitwana is exactly the type of person Congress was trying to help. And recently, she finally heard that she had been approved. But with that cap in DeKalb County, she can only get 60% of the rent that she owes. That leaves her thousands of dollars still behind. She doesn't have it. And so her landlord is on the verge of evicting her.

KITWANA: The landlord, they're not accepting it. There's myself and tons of families that's going through this. And I'm trying to figure out where does this make sense? Like, what's going on?

ARNOLD: What's going on is that the county's original plan hasn't been working. If they had been able to help almost everybody in need by limiting the money, then OK, but critics say since they're just getting a tiny fraction of the money out the door, why not at least pay the back rents in full for people like Kitwana so they don't get evicted? Rebecca Yae is with the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

REBECCA YAE: Of all the other programs that I've seen, this is definitely one of the more shocking ones. I think that this is extremely low, unfathomable. They really should be paying the full back rent.

ARNOLD: Yae says still, DeKalb's not alone and that many other programs are having trouble getting money out the door. Meanwhile, a federal moratorium that's been preventing a lot of evictions is set to expire just next week.

YAE: There is really no time left. Programs need to change now.

ARNOLD: For his part, Michael Thurmond with DeKalb County says despite the problems, his county is working hard to help all the people that they can.

THURMOND: I do believe that if we continue to work at it and find a solution, we can help people. We've helped over 500 families in DeKalb County. That's real.

ARNOLD: And he says the program provides lawyers to help renters negotiate with landlords. It's made some other improvements, too. But that 60% cap on back rents is still in place. And legal aid lawyers say that's going to mean hundreds of people like Kitwana are going to get evicted. For her part, Kitwana is just hoping that the county changes its rules very soon.

KITWANA: They're not reevaluating what they're doing and how they're hurting families.

ARNOLD: Michael Thurmond says he is reevaluating and everything's on the table, so the county might decide to pay more in back rents or pay it in full. But with the eviction moratorium expiring next week, the clock is ticking.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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