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Agencies guide renters in accessing pandemic emergency assistance

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CLEVELAND — Affordable housing advocates at Catholic Charities agencies and elsewhere are working intently to help renters access billions of dollars in federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds to prevent a surge in evictions tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

They are frustrated, however, because the $46.5 billion for rental assistance allocated since December is trickling into communities too slowly to meet the existing need.

"We've been trying to work very aggressively with our (diocesan) agencies to try to access the local government sources of eviction prevention money," said Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA.

"Part of the sadness in this, we know that essential to the whole area of the social determinant of health and well-being is housing. When our folks are losing their homes, it just cascades into hunger, mental illness, physical illness, especially in the middle of a pandemic," she said.

In an email Aug. 5, a Treasury Department official estimated that about $3 billion had been distributed to renters and landlords through early August.

The billions allocated for Emergency Rental Assistance were included in two legislative measures: $25 billion in a COVID-19 relief and omnibus spending bill passed in December and $21.5 billion in the American Rescue Plan passed in March.

The first allocation to states and localities was completed Feb. 10, the official said. About 40 percent of the funding in the second appropriation was sent to state and local governments by May 7 with the rest expected to be released in the future. The program runs through 2025.

"This program is intended to address the emergency at hand, but also to address an annual eviction crisis that predated the pandemic," the official said.

In an Aug. 4 news release, the department "reiterated its call for state and local governments operating Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs to speed the delivery of assistance to those in need by eliminating undue documentation burdens."

Data analyzed by the National Equity Atlas, shows nearly 6.4 million households were behind on rent with rent debt estimated at $21.3 billion through July 7. It includes data gathered from the most recent Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey covering the period of June 23 through July 5.

The atlas is a partnership between Oakland, California-based PolicyLink and the University of Southern California's Equity Research Institute.

A new 60-day eviction moratorium issued Aug. 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will give more time for tenants and landlords to access funds for back rent, social service agency and advocates said. The moratorium pertains to U.S. counties with "substantial and high levels of community transmission" and covers about 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Still, the advocates are pushing for a longer-term solution from Congress so that as much of the emergency funding as possible can be distributed as quickly as possible and people are not struggling to find another place to live as winter approaches because an eviction threat looms.

Government relations staff at the Catholic Charities USA are urging members of Congress to approve broad legislation that would protect tenants from eviction while assuring landlords, especially those with few rental units, are not left without income they need to pay mortgages and make repairs, Sister Markham said.

The CDC announced the new moratorium after Democratic lawmakers, housing advocates and grassroots organizations pressed President Joe Biden's administration to reinstate tenant eviction protections that expired July 31.

Tenant groups and their advocates feared a sudden onrush of evictions would result at a time when most of the country was seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, largely because of wider transmission of the highly contagious delta variant.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021