Opinion: Botched Distribution of Relief Funds Leaves Renters to Drown in Debt as Evictions Loom

By Sandra Harris

Billions of dollars of the “rent relief” authorized by the federal government have gone unused in the last year due to a mismanaged patchwork of state and local agencies tasked with distributing funds. These funds have often not been spent due to burdensome application requirements placed on tenants forced to navigate an overwhelming bureaucracy to ensure payment to their landlords.

Last month, $20 billion in emergency rental assistance was allocated by Congress as part of the most recent stimulus package. This was in addition to the $25 billion in relief that was authorized in December and the funds initially passed through the CARES Act at the beginning of the pandemic last March. Currently, an estimated 10 million Americans are behind on rent, owing approximately $57 billion to landlords across the country.

With the passage of the CARES Act, around 400 state and local rental assistance programs emerged through government agencies, private contracts, and contracts with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The programs developed their own labyrinth of eligibility requirements for tenants such as producing multiple forms of identification, detailed proof of changed income, copies of their lease, and more.

Inability to complete applications was reported as one of the main issues across the country. A renter facing eviction in Pennsylvania told local bourgeois news, “The housing authority sent me two packets that I don’t even know the answer to half the questions.”

Several states also placed a cap on the monthly payments allowed, so that most payments would not cover the actual cost of rent tenants were required to pay. These programs failed to placate landlords due to these partial payments, and did not give the support necessary for renters in need. New York and Montana reported poor numbers in their rental assistance distribution, both estimating they served only 2% of tenants who needed the relief.

Additional barriers emerged from governments contracting out to various agencies. In Las Vegas, Clark County hired 13 NGOs in 2020 to screen tenants for funds. All organizations set their own criteria, prioritizing their own bureaucratic needs over the people they claim to serve.

In Texas, a legislative committee report revealed this week that only 250 families received rental assistance out of 72,000 completed applications for a state-run program initiated in February. The Texas Rent Relief program is a $1 billion fund that state officials paid a consultant company $42 million to run.

The legislative report sought to blame the February winter storm for interrupting the rollout of the program, but acknowledged that they switched to new software during the program’s initiation, which caused system outages and forced applicants to reapply.

Pennsylvania received $175 million for rent relief in one of the stimulus packages, but only one-third was used, leaving $108 million in unused funds. The leftover funds were then “reallocated” to pay employees at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

In North Carolina, a streamlined program distributed the first round of funds, but during the second stimulus, the state legislature imposed a maximum on the funds each county could receive. This slowed down distribution and forced 100 separate county-run programs to emerge, which one politician commented was to “deliver funds where the need is across the state.” Now only $140 million out of the total $546.6 million has been distributed in the state.

The Biden administration extended the federal eviction moratorium through June 30—however, courts have ramped up to challenge the moratorium and federal judges have sent mixed messages, ruling at various times both that the moratorium is legal and that it is illegal. Regardless of legality, evictions have persisted throughout the pandemic. The supposed ban is slowly becoming less useful to the ruling class, who can wash their hands of the issue now that they have performed the task of appearing to provide sufficient aid, even while funds remain lost or repurposed in a complicated bureaucratic network.

Additionally, while possibly paying off small portions of current rent and accumulated debt, the capitalist state has no intention of forgiving all housing debt, and will not do so without a concerted struggle. Tenants and housing organizers have made the forgiveness of this debt a key demand, knowing that it will be conquered only by fighting for it.

The state, its politicians, and its NGO agents reveal that they are either unwilling or incompetent when it comes to addressing the needs of working-class tenants facing the brunt of the imperialist economic crisis. Tenants must organize and fight for their demands and fight evictions, especially as the temporary mirage of protections begins to fade away.

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