The $46.5 billion rental aid program created to pay rent accrued during the pandemic continues to disburse money at a slow pace, as the White House braces for a Supreme Court order that could strike down a new national moratorium on evictions.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded in the two federal pandemic relief packages passed over the last year, sputtered along in July, with just $1.7 billion being distributed by state and local governments, according to the Treasury Department, which oversees the program.
The money meted out was a modest increase from the prior month, bringing the total aid disbursed thus far to about $5.1 billion, figures released early Wednesday showed, or roughly 11 percent of the cash allocated by Congress to avoid an eviction crisis that many housing experts now see as increasingly likely.
“About a million payments have now gone out to families — it is starting to help a meaningful number of families,” said Gene Sperling, who oversees the operation of federal pandemic relief programs for President Biden.
“It’s just not close to enough in an emergency like this to protect all the families who need and deserve to be protected. So there is still way more to do and to do fast,” he added.
The report came as Mr. Biden’s domestic policy staff mapped out policy contingencies if the Supreme Court strikes down the moratorium, which is the administration’s principal safeguard for hundreds of thousands of low income and working class tenants hit hardest by the pandemic. White House lawyers expect a court decision this week.
The moratorium was initially implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last September under President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Biden extended it several times this year, but allowed it to briefly expire earlier this month. He reinstated it, in a slightly modified form, on Aug. 3 under pressure from congressional Democrats.
That final 60-day extension, enacted over the objection of White House lawyers, was intended to buy more time to distribute the emergency rental assistance.
The program is administered by the federal government, but it is up to states to build out a system to deliver aid to struggling renters and landlords, and that has been the main source of its problems.
Treasury Department and White House officials, speaking on a conference call Tuesday evening, acknowledged that the program was not ramping up fast enough to entirely prevent a wave of evictions, even if the justices allowed it to remain in place until its scheduled expiration date on Oct. 2.
But they also cited progress. State and local agencies have begun to steadily increase payments to hundreds of thousands of households that were at risk of eviction, with most of those going to low income tenants. They also believe the pace of payments has continued to accelerate in August.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department rolled out a slate of incremental changes intended to pressure states to move more quickly. But administration officials continue to blame the program’s struggles on local officials, many of whom are reluctant to take advantage of the program’s new fast-track application process, which allows tenants to self-certify their financial information.
In recent weeks, local officials have complained that moving too fast on aid applications could lead to errors, fraud and audits; the White House has countered by telling them those risks are insignificant compared with a wave of evictions hitting tenants who did not get their aid quickly enough to keep a roof over their heads.
“They can and should use simpler applications, speedier processes and a self-attestation option without needless delays,” Mr. Sperling added.
Several states, including Texas, have been particularly effective in ramping up their aid distribution systems, officials said. But many others — especially New York, Florida, Tennessee, Ohio and South Carolina — have been sluggish, making tenants especially vulnerable to displacement once the moratorium is lifted, they said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, who was sworn in this week, has said that speeding up the system is one of her top priorities.
States that have not used much of their money by the end of September could see their funds reallocated to other states that have been able to distribute it more effectively.
It will take local housing courts weeks to clear the backlog of eviction cases delayed by the moratorium. But many owners, especially small landlords, have rejected the federal aid, arguing that evicting nonpaying tenants is not only their right but the most effective way of ensuring their revenue is not interrupted in the future.
Last week, Wally Adeyemo, deputy Treasury secretary, traveled to Hyattsville, Md., to talk to landlords, tenants and administrators of a rental assistance program that has had success by using self-reported applications and census data to determine eligibility for the rent relief money.
Administration officials, worried that a new moratorium could be struck down at any time, are also turning to state courts — which adjudicate tenant-landlord disputes — to help deliver aid, by pressuring landlords to accept federal payments instead of proceeding with evictions, and educating tenants, who often have no legal representation in court, on their right to apply for assistance.
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