Why COVID Rental Assistance Is So Slow : Planet Money Congress created a massive pile of money to help people pay rent during the pandemic. Why have so few people gotten help? We follow the money. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

The Rent Help Is Too Damn Slow

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

There is a single moment that we are going to call Day 0 - the creation moment. And this is when Congress set aside a historically gigantic and incredibly important pile of money.

CHRIS ARNOLD, HOST:

That day is five days before Christmas - December 2020. The pandemic's raging. Millions of people have fallen behind on rent. And a massive eviction crisis is looming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time. More help is on the way.

MALONE: More help, says Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, because this was the day Congress had finally reached a deal on one of those big pandemic relief bills. And if you scroll about halfway down through this bill, you'll see Section 501. If you will, Chris.

ARNOLD: Emergency Rental Assistance - quote, "in general, out of any money in the Treasury of the United States," blah, blah, blah, "$25 billion."

MALONE: They'd add even more money. And this creates the largest pile of money in U.S. history for emergency rental assistance.

ARNOLD: And this really did seem to be one of those rare cases where our politicians saw a huge problem and came together and addressed it.

MALONE: And, of course, came together to give help-is-on-the-way speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: To people who might have been evicted from their homes...

ARNOLD: Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHUMER: ...Help is on the way.

ARNOLD: Fun trivia - he says that at least six times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHUMER: Help is on the way.

MALONE: Help is on the way. Help is on the way. Do you remember hearing anything about that? Or...

AKIRA JOHNSON: Yeah. I was watching the news every day. I probably watched every news press conference. I was looking for help.

MALONE: Akira Johnson has been trying to get that help for months now. But a stunningly small amount of rental assistance money has actually gotten to the people who need it.

ARNOLD: Akira has three young kids. And the family lives in this three-bedroom apartment in Columbia, S.C.

MALONE: Could you, like, show us around a little bit?

JOHNSON: I can show you around. So this is the living room.

MALONE: Akira gives us a Zoom tour. And the apartment, like, decoration is cheery - by design, she says, for the kids. There's flowers all over the place. The couch is covered in pillows that say things like happy and sunshine.

ARNOLD: And then she shows us painted on one wall, a giant eye with amazing eyelashes.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So I'm a licensed cosmetologist. I specialize in eyelash extensions - takes about two hours.

MALONE: Why does it take two hours to put eyelashes on?

JOHNSON: Because we put an extension on each lash.

ARNOLD: Whoa.

MALONE: Oh, every single hair gets an extension?

JOHNSON: Yes.

ARNOLD: This eyelash business used to be a great business for Akira. But when the pandemic hit, she had to shut down her salon. She struggled to get it up and running again. And now she's fallen behind on rent.

MALONE: When we talked to Akira - this was just a few weeks ago - it had been nine full months after help was supposedly on the way. And at this point, her landlord was trying to evict her. And she told us that she had a court hearing in four days and nowhere else to live.

JOHNSON: I don't know where I'm going to go. I even thought about staying in the salon, you know what I mean? Like, I don't know. That's why I'm doing everything I can now to try to prevent it. I'm reaching out to everybody that I can reach out to that could help me.

MALONE: Akira needs about $6,000 to pay her back rent. That is .0000001% of the money Congress has set aside for exactly her situation.

ARNOLD: And yet Akira has spent months trying to get that money and has no idea if it's going to come through in time for this eviction hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Man, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

JOHNSON: Right here, right here - on the phone - right here.

ARNOLD: Akira's kids are home from school. She hasn't told them any of this - the eviction notice, the court date in a few days.

MALONE: We'll let you go be with them. We'll talk to you and check in.

JOHNSON: All right.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Akira.

JOHNSON: All right, all right. Thank you.

ARNOLD: All right, bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY KERR AND JUSTIN WOODWARD'S "DELTA CYCLE")

ARNOLD: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Chris Arnold.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone.

The U.S. government created the largest pile of emergency rental assistance money in American history. And a tiny fraction of people have actually gotten rental assistance money.

ARNOLD: So today on the show, we're going to find out what's been going wrong. We're going to follow the money from that moment it was created by Congress all the way down to Akira's mailbox, hopefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY KERR AND JUSTIN WOODWARD'S "DELTA CYCLE")

MALONE: Ten months ago, Congress, you know, kind of snapped into existence billions of dollars for emergency rental assistance. I picture, you know, suddenly a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool filled with cash in the basement of the U.S. Treasury.

ARNOLD: Yeah - or, like, hundreds and hundreds of crates of cash or something like that.

WALLY ADEYEMO: It's probably hundreds and hundreds of computers because most of this is digital, as you could imagine. So...

MALONE: Ah.

ARNOLD: Wally Adeyemo is deputy secretary of the United States Treasury. He's one of the main people in charge of this pile of money. And let us just say that lots of people are going to touch this pile of money as we follow it along. And everybody that we've talked to does really seem to want to get this money out there, including Wally.

ADEYEMO: We want to prevent as much economic scarring as possible. Like, if a kid is homeless, they are no longer in school, all of a sudden, the economic damage that's not only done to their family but, like, the community and to the country is so important. So it's really important that we make these investments now.

MALONE: OK, so - but how do you make these investments? In other words, there does need to be a system to get this pile of money down to individual people.

ARNOLD: We saw one way with those stimulus checks. I mean, that was pretty easy, right? The IRS has all of our info. Treasury basically just hit the reply all on our tax filings, and, boom, the checks show up.

MALONE: But with rental assistance, the federal government does not have that, like, reply all option 'cause it doesn't really know who is facing eviction, who was behind on rent. And so Congress, when they created that pile of money, they told Wally and the Treasury, we want you to take this and to send it down to the states and counties and cities to handle.

ARNOLD: The thinking, which Wally generally agrees with, is that those more local governments have a better idea of what's happening on the ground, like who's behind on rent, who's in trouble and about to get evicted. And so they're going to be better at dealing directly with you if you need help.

ADEYEMO: It's easier for you to show up to a local office to talk about the need for rental assistance than it is for you to show up at Pennsylvania Avenue.

ARNOLD: OK, but there are a few big logjams that have been getting in the way of people like Akira getting this money. And the first one started right here because when those piles of cash got sent to 50 states and actually hundreds of counties and cities on top of that, too, what happens next is not a quick process.

MALONE: So, for example, the smaller pile of money headed towards Akira in South Carolina...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let me get some order.

MALONE: ...The money is instantly stuck in state legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Consent to return to Page 19, which is the rent assistance...

ARNOLD: Yeah, some states, including South Carolina, had to pass all new legislation just to accept this federal money. And then they had to outline their plan for doling it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is a joint resolution to authorize the use of federal funds from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

ARNOLD: So weeks go by.

MALONE: Yeah, you got in committee. You're out of committee, amendments, et cetera.

ARNOLD: More weeks go by.

MALONE: In many states, it took until March - so that is 90 days after those help-is-on-the-way speeches - for rental assistance programs to get up and running, for people to finally be able to apply to them. In South Carolina, where Akira Johnson is, it took even longer.

ARNOLD: But, OK, at least now you would think that the programs are running. They have the money. We're off to the races. Tell the people. Launch the radio ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do you owe back rent? Has the utility company sent you a past-due notice saying...

MALONE: This is a real radio ad from South Carolina, part of their, you know, media strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Paid for by an award from the U.S. Department of Treasury.

JOHNSON: They make it sound so we're here to help, but the process doesn't translate to that.

MALONE: Again, Akira Johnson. And, you know, by the time South Carolina's rental assistance program launched, we are now 135 days since the help-is-on-the-way speeches. And Akira says that she is hanging on by a thread. She'd had to do so many things to keep paying her rent, constantly reworking the numbers of her life.

ARNOLD: Before COVID hit, Akira had been making really good money. The high-end eyelash extensions that she does cost around $200 a session. She says she used to make $60,000 a year.

MALONE: Akira's a single mom in Columbia, S.C., and that money was easily enough to afford a nice apartment. She was living in a place next to a park with a nice balcony.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I was on the third floor. We had a park in the back. So, yeah, the kids went out, going right there.

ARNOLD: But then, after Akira's salon got shut down, her income went to zero. She filed for unemployment right away. And she downsized. She gave up that great apartment with the balconies for a cheaper place - 1,200 bucks down to 900 bucks.

MALONE: You know, for a while, between cheaper costs, you know, dipping into her savings and her unemployment, she was able to keep paying rent. But eventually, you know, Akira does fall behind on rent. Luckily, it does happen right around the time South Carolina finally got its rental assistance program up and running. And so Akira thinks, OK, like, let's try this. She logs on to the application site.

JOHNSON: Then they wanted you to upload your documents, so basically your income, electric bill, ID - copy of your ID - your lease.

ARNOLD: Basically, this is proof that Akira is actually a renter, proof that she's fallen behind on rent, proof that she's lost income during the pandemic.

MALONE: She gets all this stuff together, sends it off. Basically, it all goes to this guy.

CHRIS WINSTON: So my name is Chris Winston - C-H-R-I-S W-I-N-S-T-O-N.

ARNOLD: Chris Winston helps run the rental assistance program at SC Housing. That's South Carolina's housing agency.

WINSTON: The agency has a seven- or eight-, nine-word name, but we go by SC Housing is our branding.

MALONE: And I'll just say I hadn't fully realized that Chris Winston's agency is just one of literally hundreds of places that were handed little piles of money from that original giant pile of rental assistance money.

ARNOLD: And there are 500 different programs like this that are now trying to distribute this money. So when people talk about, like, the emergency rental assistance, it's really like this beast with 500 heads, each of them making decisions and trying to figure out how to do all this right.

MALONE: And, you know, a lot of them, they all start having this same revelation kind of around the same time. And the way this played out in South Carolina is that Chris Winston saw that his program was getting lots of applications. But for some reason, they were not getting approved.

WINSTON: We're like, all right, we have these thousands of applications in the system. Why aren't they making it to the finish line? That's when we realized how many applications were being held up because of documentation requirements.

ARNOLD: Documentation requirements - and this is the major logjam No. 2.

MALONE: So when the government hands out taxpayer money, they don't want fraud, and so they tend to ask for a lot of documents. In South Carolina's case, it was asking for five different things that needed to be documented. And Chris Winston says they soon started to realize these things were backfiring.

ARNOLD: So proof that you are a renter - show a lease. I mean, that sounds pretty simple.

WINSTON: A lot of people in South Carolina have very informal lease arrangements. We have a lot of folks who rent from Jimmy this house or this apartment or this mobile home on some land, and there's no assigned - there's no signed arrangement. There's no signed agreements - very informal.

ARNOLD: So renters who need this money - they really need it to keep a roof over their families' heads and should be getting it - don't get the help because they don't have a lease.

MALONE: Another example - providing proof that you have lost your job.

WINSTON: People struggled with how to prove it.

ARNOLD: Documenting something that doesn't exist, like my job I don't have anymore...

WINSTON: Correct.

ARNOLD: ...Can be hard for people, right?

WINSTON: Correct. Proving that you're not doing something or that something's not happening has proven to be a challenge.

MALONE: After South Carolina's program had been up and running for about a month, Chris says they looked at the numbers, and they had handed out money to, like, 10 families - 10. A national ranking showed that the state was the second worst in the nation at getting money out to people.

WINSTON: When we launched, it was more about being good stewards of taxpayer funds when it came to making sure that it only got out the door to the right folks. And like we've talked about, we realized it was stopping folks who needed the help.

MALONE: And to be fair to South Carolina, this was happening in a lot of states.

ARNOLD: Yeah, so the Treasury Department started getting louder and louder, telling states, look; this is an emergency. You do not need to collect all this paperwork. Just have people give you an ID, a lease if they have one and check a box, I mean, basically just saying, I swear legally that I do need this help, and give them the money.

WINSTON: It was a big change. And it doesn't come without it some heartburn. Audits are a real part of our lives here in a state agency like ours that deals in so much money from Treasury and others. And so it really made a lot of - it made a big impact when Treasury comes forward and says, no, we know you usually collect these documents, and we don't want that to hold things up.

MALONE: And so South Carolina starts dropping requirements. They even just, like, circle about 190 ZIP codes on the map and say, these are low-income places. We know this. And so if you're from here, you basically qualify for help if you're behind on rent.

ARNOLD: So now we're about 180 days past those help-is-on-the-way speeches. And finally, in South Carolina, more money starts flying out the door.

MALONE: Which is good because this is about the time things got very serious for Akira, who, like millions of other people, were being protected by a federal eviction moratorium.

ARNOLD: Yeah. Over the summer, the Supreme Court struck down that moratorium. And Akira says it was like her landlord was just waiting for that to end.

JOHNSON: They filed an eviction on me. August 4, they knocked on my door with the eviction paper.

ARNOLD: At this point, Akira is four months behind on rent. And that rental assistance money, that help has still not arrived. Akira spends days on the phone following up about the application she'd put in. And she actually finds out some good news - that she definitely qualifies for the money.

MALONE: However, here is where we hit logjam No. 3. And I have to say, like, this one was the most surprising to me because, you know, when the state told Akira, hey, we're ready to pay your back rent, they also said that we're going to just need some paperwork from your landlord.

ARNOLD: So essentially, what happens is that Akira emails her landlord, the company, and says, hey, you know, I just need some documents from you, and South Carolina will pay all of my back rent.

MALONE: The landlord eventually answers back and basically says, no, we don't want to deal with that. The eviction is going ahead as planned.

JOHNSON: I still don't know why they won't accept the money. And you telling me a rich person - I don't know who he is - but you got families that you rather see on the street? That didn't make sense to me.

ARNOLD: So, yeah, this is the third big problem - that under the rules of most of these programs, the money has to go to the landlord, not the renter, not Akira. So if the landlord says no, the renter is just stuck and doesn't get their back rent paid and then can get evicted.

MALONE: And this is exactly where things stood when we talked to Akira. She had a court date in four days. She had spent months trying to get rental assistance. The state was ready to pay her back rent, and her landlord was just pushing ahead with evicting her family anyway.

JOHNSON: I feel like they are cold-blooded, sadistic people. You know what I mean? That's just how I feel. Like, they don't care. And on my lease, they see the children. They see all of that.

ARNOLD: If Akira gets evicted, she has no idea where she'd go to live. It might mean sending her kids off to live with different relatives, I mean, basically breaking up her family.

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

ARNOLD: That's OK.

JOHNSON: But, you know, I would probably rather go to a shelter where we can all be together. You know what I mean? So that's probably the hardest part, just thinking about being separated from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF SMITH'S "CUT GLASS STARS")

MALONE: After the break, why can Akira's landlord just say no? How do you fix that? And how might that save Akira?

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF SMITH'S "CUT GLASS STARS")

MALONE: Before we had really dug into this stuff, I have to say, I just assumed if someone was handing a landlord a check for, like, $6,000 or sometimes $20,000 that they would take it - like business 101, right? But, you know, we've talked to a lot of landlords and lawyers and people running these rental assistance programs, and a lot more often than certainly I would've thought, landlords don't take the money. It has become a problem.

ARNOLD: And there are a couple of different reasons why some landlords just want the person out. I mean, they have been having trouble paying, and the housing market is very tight right now, and they can just raise the rent and get a new tenant and move on. Some other landlords maybe haven't been, let's say, totally forthcoming with the government about their earnings. So if they hand over documents that functionally show that they've been cheating on their taxes, that does not seem like a good idea to them.

MALONE: And we should say we did try many times to speak with Akira's specific landlord. It is a company that did not respond to our many, many requests for comment, and so we do not know exactly why they aren't interested in working with Akira.

ARNOLD: But Akira was, of course, scared and devastated to come so far and then finally get approved for this help, only to have her landlord say no.

JOHNSON: I feel like they got more power than they're supposed to have because I don't see how a company, a private company, can deny federal funds to a citizen. So it's just disheartening.

ARNOLD: One obvious solution here is to just cut checks directly to tenants. But most states have been very hesitant to do this because, theoretically, if you cut a check directly to the renter, there is, of course, a risk that they won't use that money to pay their rent.

MALONE: But, like, also, what is now obvious is that if you don't give the money to the renter, like Akira says, you give the landlord all this power to deny money to people, help that Congress wanted people to have.

ARNOLD: And so very slowly, rental assistance programs have been coming around on this, and about 30% of them now have started cutting checks directly to tenants if the landlords won't cooperate.

MALONE: Seventy percent aren't, and so it's still a big problem. However, not so in South Carolina, where they have just started doing this. And in fact, South Carolina told Akira that they would send her a check, but it was not going to be there in time for her court hearing. So Akira would just have to go to court, explain all of this to the judge and, like, just hope that was enough to keep her in her house.

ARNOLD: Right after that 3 o'clock court hearing, we talked to Akira on Zoom.

Hey, Akira.

JOHNSON: Hey. How are you?

ARNOLD: It sounds like you're relieved here.

JOHNSON: I am relieved. They gave me time to get the money in. I guess I feel vindicated because, you know, you're doing the right thing. You know, I just feel a lot better. I feel more relaxed since 3 o'clock (laughter).

MALONE: Now this moment of relief, finally, this is 267 days after Congress approved rental assistance, after all of those help-is-on-the-way speeches.

ARNOLD: And, of course, versions of this are happening in every one of the 500 rental assistance programs. Each one is finding problems, trying to fix them - hopefully.

MALONE: And, you know, look; things are getting better now. Like, a couple of months ago, only 10% of the money had gotten to people who needed it. It is about double that at last count.

ARNOLD: So far, around 1.5 million payments have gone out to people, and that is an incredible number. That's a lot of people. On the other hand, about 8 million people are still behind on their rent, so the race is really on to get even better at getting these rental assistance checks into people's hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RIPPING)

MALONE: This recording of Akira is from, like, literally days ago because it actually took even longer for Akira to finally get her rental assistance check in the mail. It's about two weeks after that eviction hearing.

JOHNSON: That's it (laughter).

MALONE: How does it feel to look at that check?

JOHNSON: Great. I'm just ready to go forward. Yup, it's relief.

MALONE: For the moment, Akira and her family are going to be OK. She has paid her back rent. But her business is just getting back on its feet. And if she does have trouble paying rent again, she should qualify for more help if she needs it.

ARNOLD: So the final count from help-is-on-the-way speeches back in December and help finally reaching Akira Johnson - that happened 283 days later.

JOHNSON: Yes, it's frustrating because it's just the process was very rigorous.

MALONE: What would you like to say to those senators who gave those help-is-on-the-way speeches 283 days ago?

JOHNSON: They need to work a little harder 'cause I know it's a lot of families that are displaced. They might not be complaining, but COVID was nobody's fault - none of our fault. It shouldn't be this hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF SMITH'S "STRELITZIA NUMBER 5")

MALONE: If you are dealing with the rental assistance program, we're very interested in hearing more about your story. And my colleague Chris Arnold here, he is doing some of the best reporting on this. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. And, Chris, you want people to reach out to you directly?

ARNOLD: Yeah, sure. You can email me - carnold@npr.org.

MALONE: Today's episode of PLANET MONEY was produced by Audrey Dilling, with help from Isaac Rodrigues (ph) and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. It was edited by Barbara Raab (ph). Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. I'm Kenny Malone.

ARNOLD: And I'm Chris Arnold. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF SMITH'S "STRELITZIA NUMBER 5")

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