Mitigate: Bridge Financial, Social, and Legal Assistance
For Goal 1, the Strategy Group identified actions that could be implemented with the housing information currently available while awaiting the collection of additional data (see Goal 2). Bridging the financial, social, and legal assistance needs of affected communities, both tenants and landlords, can play a significant role in mitigating rental housing instability and reducing the health, human dignity, social, and economic costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. To be most effective, rental assistance needs to reach the tenants most at risk of eviction and homelessness efficiently without placing undue administrative burdens on those renters or their landlords (Collinson et al., 2019; Leonard et al., 2021). As of March 2021, the U.S. Congress had approved a total of $46.55 billion for emergency rental assistance to prevent a wave of evictions due to the large amount of accumulated rental arrears as pandemic-related moratoriums expire.1 However, because of the complexity associated with distributing financial assistance to individuals—ranging from administrative and workforce to technical challenges encountered at each level of government—only a small portion of this rental aid had reached tenants and landlords by May (DeParle, 2021).
Once identified, households at highest risk of housing instability and eviction will need outreach, services, and assistance tailored to their particular circumstances in language they can understand and in a format they can use. Historically, housing assistance has served relatively few eligible individuals (Sherman and Trisi, 2015), but with expansion, it could be the most efficient way to reach the majority of households at risk of eviction due to the pandemic. Other social benefits with wider uptake and reach, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment insurance, and Medicaid, could be harnessed to deliver such assistance. These social safety net programs contribute indirectly to housing security by allowing households to allocate more of their limited budgets to housing costs (Allen et al., 2019; Brennan et al., 2020; Keith-Jennings et
1 See https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/cares/emergency-rental-assistance-program.
al., 2019) (see Goal 3). These large means-tested social assistance programs also commonly are linked to the delivery of other supports, including more niche benefits (Ambegaokar et al., 2017). Their infrastructure could thus serve as one-stop shops for a broad array of downstream improvements, including the distribution of emergency rental aid.
For these reasons and across all scenarios explored, the Strategy Group determined that actions aimed at working in partnership with community-based organizations to bridge existing social and financial programs so as to reach tenants most at risk of eviction and at expanding and improving social safety net programs are robust means of successfully reducing housing instability due to the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, as well as mitigating the impacts of evictions that do occur.
Harness Existing Social Programs for Broad, Proactive, and Targeted Outreach to Connect Renters with Financial and Legal Assistance
Rationale: Many tenants who face a loss of housing may not know what resources are available to them or how to make use of those resources. Administrative burdens, such as proving the need for assistance, may also prevent those tenants most in need from receiving this assistance. This is particularly true of people in marginalized and disenfranchised communities and those facing housing instability for the first time as a result of the pandemic’s health and economic impacts. Yet many individuals are already being served by the social insurance system,2 as well as by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has been instrumental in providing certain types of pandemic relief. While only a fraction of eligible individuals and households actually receive most social benefits, these programs still reach a massive population of individuals in the United States (e.g., CBPP, 2018) struggling with their finances (Edelstein et al., 2014), and thereby at highest risk of severe financial insecurity during the pandemic (Nassif-Pires et al., 2020). Therefore, harnessing existing social benefit programs is the simplest means of rapid response to mitigate the poverty (and, by extension, housing) crisis resulting from the pandemic until more dedicated frameworks can be developed (see Strategy 1C). Those efforts to expand outreach, link existing programs, and streamline application processes can be aimed at improving the percentage of eligible individuals and households that receive assistance.
Regular communication channels used by agencies administering these social programs to communicate regularly with beneficiaries (SMS, email, regular mail, in-person office visits) could also be used for outreach and disbursement of aid through
2 Whether because they receive unemployment insurance benefits, SNAP, or Medicaid; receive assistance under homelessness prevention programs, such as the Emergency Solutions Grant Program; or are retired or have disabilities and hence receive Old Age Survivor Disability Insurance (OASDI) or Medicare.
these programs, effectively targeting those individuals found to be most at risk of housing instability.3 However, some key agencies reportedly have been unable to reach many individuals in need during the pandemic owing to some combination of insufficient workforce, outdated technology, and inefficient use of the administrative infrastructure (Long, 2021). With additional resources released in response to the pandemic, more effective use of data (as proposed under Goal 2), and a strengthened legal and organizational framework, these agencies could quickly begin reaching millions of individuals at risk of losing their housing with information on eviction moratoriums, how to connect to local legal aid providers, and how to apply for federal emergency rental assistance funds.4 In May 2021, for example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition launched an Emergency Rental Assistance Resource Hub, Dashboard, and Program Table to “monitor trends [and] facilitate resource sharing,” a critical step to “help renters access emergency rental assistance.”5
Recognizing the importance of hearing and learning from a diverse coalition of stakeholders—such as property owners and managers, tenants, lawyers, researchers, community advocates, and government leaders—local and state institutions have established cross-sectoral task forces to develop rental eviction mitigation strategies prior to6 or as an emergency response to the pandemic.7 While many such programs are administered at the state level, several are operating within a federal system led by federal agencies. Hence, a national task force would play a crucial role in establishing best practices for outreach strategies, targeting and coordinating referrals, fostering cooperation among programs serving similar individuals, and developing resource dashboards.
Action 1A-1: To coordinate the connection of individuals and families at risk of eviction with information and resources to a level commensurate with the gravity of the housing instability problem, the Executive Office of the President should consider establishing a national task force to prevent eviction and mitigate its effects during the pandemic and beyond. This task force could extend the existing Interagency Council on Homelessness
3 It has been shown that administrative program data can be used to predict housing instability and homelessness (see, e.g., von Wachter et al., 2019).
4 According to a May 2020 report, for example, an annual $5.7 million investment for right to counsel for tenants in Baltimore would provide $35.6 million in benefits for Baltimore City and Maryland (Stout Risius Ross, LLC, 2020).
5 See https://nlihc.org/era-dashboard.
6 See Eviction Prevention Task Force (2019) and Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response (2018).
7 See City of Alexandria (2020), Colorado Department of Local Affairs (2020), Northern Virginia Eviction Prevention and Community Stability Task Force (2020).
with representation from key state and federal agencies that administer and coordinate major social programs currently serving millions of individuals affected by the COVID-19 crisis.8 In addition, this task force could include tenant advocates, attorneys, and property owners. The task force could take the following specific actions:
- Working with states as necessary, coordinate and deploy proactive outreach to renters at risk of eviction because of the COVID-19 pandemic by harnessing, modernizing, and scaling up existing administrative social program infrastructure to directly reach individuals with tailored information about eviction moratoriums, legal service providers at the local level, and social support programs.
- Develop data-driven strategies based on existing information on service recipients to target outreach efforts to those renters most at risk of being affected by housing instability, eviction, and homelessness (see Goal 2).
- Devise strategies for reaching out to individuals who have never received federal support, especially historically marginalized groups, using, among other channels, local networks, community-based organizations (see also Strategy 1B), and a national outreach campaign.
- Devise guidance and best practices on how agencies can cooperate to develop one-stop application portals for sharing information and streamlining the application process for multiple programs.
- In collaboration with nongovernmental organizations, develop recommendations for reaching traditionally marginalized communities with limited access to information technology and broadband internet.
- Devise a strategy for immediately mobilizing a large number of temporary state and local administrative employees and streamlining state procedures to enable the above actions and quickly disburse federal emergency rental assistance to the large number of applicants expected.
Action 1A-2: To protect tenants from eviction and provide relief for landlords, state and federal agencies that administer social programs could use their administrative infrastructures—along with any improvements resulting from Action 1A-1—to quickly and effectively allocate the emergency rental assistance funds provided by recent federal relief packages directly to tenant rental arrears accumulated because of hardship during the pandemic. To reduce the administrative burden placed on tenants, landlords could be permitted to apply for rental assistance.
Action 1A-3: Local public housing authorities, state housing agencies, and local governments should reach out to landlords, including through local property management associations, to ensure that they are fully informed of all assistance programs
8 E.g., HUD, HHS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Administration for Children and Families, Indian Health Service, Health Resources and Services Administration, Administration for Community Living), USDA (SNAP, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, National School Lunch Program, USDOL (unemployment insurance), Social Security Administration (OASDI/Supplemental Security Income), U.S. Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Education, and others.
available to tenants in every market, including financial and legal support, online support, and language translation, and, if they can, assist them in gaining access to these services.
Action 1A-4: HUD should develop and provide technical support for an interactive web-based screening tool that would enable individuals seeking economic support and community-based organizations assisting them to better connect to the range of social benefits available to them, such as unemployment insurance, SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and Medicaid.
Action 1A-5: HUD should engage with the U.S. Department of Justice to distribute funds provided by recent federal relief packages to existing legal aid programs in order to increase the number of attorneys that can represent tenants and coordinate the right to access legal counsel for those facing eviction because of the hardship resulting from the pandemic. To create comprehensive and lasting relief for tenants at risk of eviction because of the pandemic, this service could be part of a strategic multitiered approach (dispute resolution, right to counsel, social support, financial assistance; see Strategy 1C) with a state-by-state evaluation program.
Provide Assistance to Renters in Traditionally Marginalized Communities by Scaling Activities in Community-Based Organizations
Rationale: The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically worsened an already severe housing problem for chronically low-income households dealing with the persistent array of social challenges facing marginalized communities. People of color, particularly Black and Latinx populations, are also more likely to face housing insecurity and are at greater risk of eviction relative to their White counterparts (Benfer et al., 2020; City Life/Vida Urbana, 2020; Hepburn et al., 2020), and each eviction imposes additional burdens on family and social support networks that are often in a similar situation and in the same community.
An analysis of 220 COVID-19 rent relief programs shows that flexibility in the design and implementation of these programs is essential to deploying these resources (Reina et al., 2021). Additional analysis of these programs finds it is important to include an equity framework and goals in program design and implementation so traditionally marginalized groups, who, as noted above, are often the most affected by the pandemic, can be served (Gould Ellen et al., 2021). This analysis also reveals the need for flexibility in the form the assistance can take, with some municipalities experiencing high levels of owner nonparticipation in rent relief programs even when no restrictions have been attached to receiving the funds, thus necessitating direct tenant rent relief options (Aiken et al., 2021). Because at-risk tenants typically have substantially less access to smartphones, broadband internet, or computers at home
(see, e.g., Anderson and Kumar, 2019), they often face challenges in receiving and maintaining the support for which they are eligible.
Given appropriate resources, community-based organizations that have engendered trust with communities over time and grassroots mutual aid networks (Arnold, 2020) can devise effective strategies for reaching these individuals and clearly communicating information on available resources and on renters’ rights, including avenues for self-advocacy and ways to form or join organized tenants’ unions (Dreier, 1996).
Action 1B-1: State and local governments should provide funding and support to community-based organizations, such as legal aid agencies and tenant advocates, for establishing a process, in consultation with landlords, that triggers assistance in the form of the provision of information and legal aid to tenants regarding procedures, rights, and resources for which they may be eligible should they receive a notice of eviction or unlawful detainer notice. These funds could support community-based organizations in training existing and new staff to assist individuals at risk of eviction because of the pandemic, with the goal of expanding and sustaining their operations through the economic recovery.
Action 1B-2: State and local governments should enlist community-based organizations, particularly those with expertise in culturally specific communications, to connect with members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), immigrant, and refugee communities that may not be covered by public assistance programs; people with disabilities; and members of other historically marginalized communities.
Expand and Improve Social Safety Net Programs during the Pandemic and Beyond
Rationale for Actions 1C-1, 1C-2, 1C-3, and 1C-4: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to large-scale and long-lasting unemployment among workers in low-wage service sectors. Cash assistance, including unemployment insurance, reduces the housing insecurity that accompanies unemployment shocks (Bhutta et al., 2020; Hsu et al., 2018). SNAP has also been shown to reduce the risk of families with children falling behind on their housing and utility bills (Shaefer and Gutierrez, 2013).9 Even with these
9 Other studies documenting the importance of unemployment insurance and SNAP in relieving hardship during recessions include Rothstein (2011), Schmieder et al. (2012), Chodorow-Reich and Coglianese (2019), and Schanzenbach (2019).
safety net programs, however, job loss during recessions has traditionally led to greater housing insecurity (Burke et al., 2013; Tian et al., 2016; U.S. Department of Labor, 2021). Many lower-income workers spend the majority of their income on food and other necessities, so they have difficulty paying rent and surviving on regular unemployment insurance benefits, which pay no more than 50 percent of prior earnings.10 To these workers, in addition to emergency housing assistance described elsewhere in this report, the supplement to weekly benefits provided by the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation11 programs, the expansion of who is able to claim benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program,12 and the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, all extended through September 2021, and the ability to claim SNAP while receiving unemployment insurance benefits have been crucial to avoiding housing and food insecurity and will likely continue to be important until employment is more fully restored.13
The pandemic has also highlighted important limitations of the major U.S. safety net programs, with the unemployment benefits system struggling to provide the necessary aid in a timely fashion. These difficulties reflect in part the deterioration of that system’s infrastructure and finances in recent decades (Badger and Parlapiano, 2020), and in part the speed and magnitude of the crisis. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act did increase unemployment benefits and expand the number of eligible workers, many states were unable to accommodate these changes in a timely manner, and many workers were left without benefits (Roll and Grinstein-Weiss, 2020; Zaretsky, 2020; Zipperer and Gould, 2020). Also, while many states have provided trigger-based extended benefits during the pandemic, these triggers often end some benefits prematurely, leaving the unemployed without support before the labor market has recovered.14 Hence, extending federally funded benefit programs could help prevent mass evictions. Likewise, while SNAP also expanded its benefits during the pandemic, this expansion came after years of cutbacks in benefits and eligibility and after discussion of a range of factors that can have an impact on defining allotment adequacy (Oliveira et al., 2018). Moreover, the ability of these programs to act as a safety net and an automatic stabilizer during recessions can be subject to the vicissitudes of the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch. In December 2020, for instance, pandemic and emergency unemployment insurance benefits were allowed to expire temporarily as the Congress delayed passing authorizing legislation.
10 Even with the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation supplement, median unemployment insurance benefit levels during the COVID-19 period have been just above HUD’s threshold for very low income in California (Hedin et al., 2020).
11 See https://www.uc.pa.gov/COVID-19/CARES-Act/pages/fpuc-faqs.aspx.
12 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program covers many self-employed and low-income individuals who do not qualify for regular unemployment insurance.
13 As of April 2021, the level of nonfarm payrolls was still 8 million below its prepandemic high.
14 This has led to the shutdown of state extended benefits in many states during the crisis, affecting a large number of workers and highlighting the role of federal benefit extensions (Bell et al., 2021).
Action 1C-1: The U.S. Congress, in partnership with state public health authorities, should consider making the expiration of federally funded extensions of the unemployment insurance and SNAP programs contingent on sufficient improvement in state economic conditions, rather than time based, during the pandemic and after it has been controlled. They should also consider extending policies stipulating that unemployment insurance income should not count toward SNAP eligibility during the same period.
Action 1C-2: The U.S. Congress, USDOL, and state governments should consider a comprehensive reform of the unemployment insurance system aimed at increasing accessibility and benefits, including but not limited to modernizing the system infrastructure, instituting mandated benefit floors, improving the financial position of state unemployment insurance funds, and reducing administrative hurdles for receiving benefits.
Action 1C-3: The U.S. Congress, USDOL, and state governments might consider ways to extend eligibility for unemployment insurance permanently for workers who are traditionally uncovered, including self-employed and part-time workers and those who otherwise do not meet the income threshold.
Action 1C-4: USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service could modernize SNAP by updating the Thrifty Food Plan to better account for costs, eliminating barriers to participation, incorporating Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer as a permanent part of the program, and enhancing the program’s automatic stabilizer characteristics so families need not choose between paying rent and buying food during the pandemic and beyond.
Rationale for Actions 1C-5 and 1C-6: While some unemployed workers will return to the jobs they held prior to the pandemic, others will need to find new lines of work if their previous industries have shrunk or changed their operations during the pandemic to be less dependent on workers. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Wagner-Peyser Act (WPA) are the main funding sources for federal training and intensive job search assistance for dislocated and low-income workers in the United States. However, there currently is no strong channel connecting the long-term unemployed receiving unemployment insurance or SNAP to these programs. The U.S. Congress needs to prepare this vital infrastructure for the potential influx of large numbers of low-educated, long-term unemployed people who may have experience in previous lines of work in retail sales, accommodation, and food service—sectors that show some permanent decline because of the long-term effects of the pandemic on business and leisure travel, telecommuting, and social activities (see Barrero et al., 2020; Bartik et al., 2020).
Action 1C-5: The U.S. Congress should consider reauthorizing the WIOA and increasing funding for intensive job search programs authorized through the WPA to prepare for an influx of individuals seeking work after having lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Action 1C-6: The U.S. Congress should consider policy options for better connecting to intensive WIOA and WPA services those individuals being served by unemployment insurance and SNAP who are at risk of long-term unemployment as a result of the pandemic.
Rationale for Actions 1C-7 and 1C-8: Outside of catastrophic events such as a pandemic, economic and business fluctuations and resulting unemployment are a constant feature of the U.S. economy. Such events place a disproportionate burden on those with limited resources to overcome income reductions during a period of unemployment. These are also the groups typically underserved by unemployment insurance because of either excessive income eligibility requirements, administrative burdens, or lack of access to information technology.15 Looking ahead and preparing for future crises, linking unemployment benefits and services to different assistance programs could create a stronger social safety net that could allow particularly vulnerable individuals to continue paying rent despite such negative economic events as job loss.
Action 1C-7: To reach low-income renters more effectively, USDOL and responsible state agencies could use the infrastructure discussed under Action 1A-1 to take steps toward integrating unemployment insurance programs with other social insurance programs serving similar populations, such as SNAP and housing assistance programs, using the dashboard described in Action 2A-5 below.
Action 1C-8: In light of the difficulties encountered by the government while distributing emergency assistance to vulnerable individuals during the pandemic, USDOL, USDA, HUD, IRS, and state governments should improve infrastructure for linking services and delivering payments to households, in particular those that do not currently file taxes, so that during future disruptive events, individuals and households will receive payments in a timely fashion, protecting them and the nation’s economy.
15 For evidence on the unequal coverage of the unemployment insurance program during the COVID-19 crisis, see Bell et al. (2021) and Forsythe (2021).
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