Source: New York Times
Byline: Conor Dougherty
Date: 12/15/2020

For several months, Gregory Heller, an official with a Philadelphia nonprofit group, has grappled with an unusual problem. He had $60 million in rental aid to help low-income tenants weather the pandemic — and a whole lot of trouble spending it.

Designing questionnaires, verifying bank statements, processing stacks of paperwork: There is a wide administrative gap between the goal of getting money to renters who need it and the reality of cutting a check to their landlord. People like Mr. Heller are trying to bridge it.

He is among hundreds of public servants and nonprofit employees nationwide who are scrambling to unload hundreds of millions in federal aid for tenants before a Dec. 30 deadline. They don’t have enough money to address a growing rental housing crisis yet are struggling to pay out what they have — an undertaking that has become even more urgent as other federal emergency programs, including unemployment benefits and an eviction moratorium, are also about to expire.

Working from a home office in front of a laptop whose spreadsheets represent roofs over families’ heads, Mr. Heller, senior vice president for community investment at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, is so engulfed in his efforts that he now supplements the work of his support staff by taking calls from tenants and landlords on his cellphone. That way he can pitch in on answering questions and review applications on the fly, part of a rush to stave off a wave of evictions, one tenant at a time.

“I get calls all day, every day,” he said. “I’ve basically joined the help desk.”

Philadelphia is a case study in the simple-but-not-easy task of helping tenants with the rent. Social programs are often a partnership in which cities provide funding and lay out rules but delegate the execution to quasi-governmental nonprofit organizations like Mr. Heller’s. Like most places, Philadelphia isn’t close to satisfying the need for help. But through rounds of rejiggering and three phases of funding — each with its own maze of rules and requirements — Mr. Heller’s group built a team to distribute aid, whittled down the processes that delayed it and ultimately concluded that the best way to help was the most straightforward: Give the money directly to renters.

“There’s a societal belief that poor people can’t spend money the right way, and I think it’s important to start questioning that assumption,” Mr. Heller said.

Almost from the moment the pandemic spread across the United States, advocacy groups have warned that the economic fallout could cause mass displacement of low-income tenants. In response, more than 400 state and local governments have used money from the federal CARES Act to set up funds to cover at least $4.3 billion in rental assistance — money that has helped tenants pay their bills and landlords stay current on their mortgages, according to a database set up by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a policy group.

But now many jurisdictions are reporting trouble spending it, and with barely two weeks left in the year, they are on pace to have more than $300 million left over, according to the coalition’s database. In a pattern that predated the pandemic, the programs have been complicated by bureaucratic hurdles, competing budget demands and a reluctance among landlords to take part.

There was shifting federal guidance on how CARES Act money could be spent. States passed legislation that piled local rules on top of the federal rules. Each layer was ostensibly created to improve programs — preventing fraud, making sure the money went to the neediest tenants — but added numerous hurdles for both tenants and landlords, and in the end cost time.

“In trying to build bulletproof programs, you build programs that take a long time to get off the ground or simply don’t work because they are too clunky,” said Brad Gair, a principal with Witt O’Brien’s, an emergency-management consulting firm that has helped about a dozen state and local governments create rental funds.

Hoping to distribute the remaining aid before it is forfeited, many states and cities are simplifying applications and moving money from nonprofits that can’t process the aid fast enough to those that can. Others are redirecting the funds to different purposes, lest they go unspent.

None of this is for lack of demand. In interviews, more than a dozen officials of nonprofit groups and housing administrators reported a deluge of applications, while reports show tenants are piling up credit card bills, back rent and loans. Moody’s Analytics estimates that by the end of the year some 11 million lower-income renters will be about $70 billion in arrears.

Tenant advocates, landlord organizations and local-government associations have called on Congress to extend the Dec. 30 deadline. “The idea of reverting that money back to the Treasury just as the eviction moratoriums expire and renters are on the brink is absurd and cruel,” said Diane Yentel, chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Like most U.S. cities, Philadelphia had a housing problem long before the pandemic. Rents are lower than in markets like New York and San Francisco, but the burden on tenants is still high. In 2018, about a third of the city’s tenants spent at least half of their pretax income on rent, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Despite this, federal aid for housing has been declining for decades, part of a continued disinvestment in the social safety net. The line for the federal Section 8 program, which gives vouchers to low-income renters, is more than a decade long in Philadelphia. At the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program is giving the city less than half of the funding that it received in 1995, adjusted for inflation.

Looking to expand aid, Mayor Jim Kenney announced in early March that the city would budget $50 million for a five-year program to assist low-income households. It would also run an experiment, giving one group of households rental vouchers while another group of families got unrestricted cash assistance.

The coronavirus ended that by blowing a hole in the city’s budget. But the CARES Act added some $60 million in new funds, some through the state and some in direct federal support to cities. The catch was that it had to be spent quickly. And that’s where Mr. Heller’s group came in.

Mr. Heller, 39, has spent his career in the nonprofit world and has been a consultant on neighborhood development projects in two dozen cities. In 2016, he was appointed to run the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, a role he still holds, and last year he joined the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.

Money can come in an instant, but running new programs involves a bunch of mundane but important tasks. Mr. Heller’s organization could not take applications or distribute aid until it had built new information technology infrastructure, with a web portal for claims and 18 full-time employees to review applications and field calls.

The first phase was rolled out on May 12 and covered up to $2,500 in rent over three months. Within four days the city had 13,000 applicants. About a third were approved, consuming $10 million of the eventual $60 million.

At the same time, Pennsylvania used CARES Act money to start a separate rental-aid program. This was confusing to landlords and tenants, because while that money was also distributed through nonprofits like Mr. Heller’s, it had different criteria from Philadelphia’s program. The major distinction was that the state program would cover no more than $750 in rent, and to receive it property owners had to agree to forgive the balance, and to waive late fees and back rent. This caused a number of landlords — especially in Philadelphia, where the median rent is $1,600 — to balk. And without landlords’ consent, tenants couldn’t get the aid.

Victor Pinckney, a landlord and former president of HAPCO, a city landlords’ group, said the reason was simple: He and others didn’t want to take less than the market rent, or give up the right to collect back payments. “It was a no-brainer,” he said.

The result was that tenants like Christy Lee Nicholas, who spent two days filling out the questionnaire and assembling pay stubs and bank statements, didn’t even have their applications looked at because the city couldn’t process them without landlord forms.

Ms. Nicholas, 42, made about $1,400 a month from a part-time teaching job but was laid off during the pandemic. She recently applied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, and pays $1,100 a month in rent. She is one month behind on rent and applied for the city’s program, but her landlord didn’t send in his own forms.

“I got an email that said, ‘Sorry, but unfortunately participation requires your landlord,’” she said.

This problem went far beyond Philadelphia. Vincent Reina, an urban planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently found that in some cities as many as half of tenants could not get landlords to cooperate with rental assistance programs. The reasons included not wanting to deal with bureaucracy and an unwillingness to comply with terms like waiving back rent or losing the right to evict tenants collecting aid.

“We’ve consistently created programs where owners have ultimate veto power over whether a tenant can access the housing assistance that they’ve applied for and need,” Mr. Reina said.

To coax more landlords into the program, Philadelphia used its own CARES Act money to augment state rental funds, allowing it to cover up to $1,500 a month in rent. That took care of an additional $30 million, but even with a higher rent cap, 37 percent of landlords still refused to take part.

With the end of the year approaching, the city gave Mr. Heller’s organization $20 million for a third program for tenants. This time, instead of having separate applications from landlords and tenants, the organizers asked people who weren’t able to get aid from the first two rounds to reapply — for a cash payment.

“We don’t want to penalize them just because their landlord won’t play ball,” Mr. Heller said.

One of them was Linda Harkins. Ms. Harkins is a 67-year-old retiree who makes about $1,200 a month from a pension and Social Security, and until recently supplemented it with about $600 a month from a part-time job with the Census Bureau. When her position was cut, Ms. Harkins applied to the city’s rental assistance program.

Her application, like Ms. Nicholas’s, was denied because her landlord did not send in a form. Last month, she applied for the new direct-aid program. Ms. Harkins is hoping the check will arrive by Christmas, or at least the first of the month.

With the new cash program, Mr. Heller said he was confident that all $60 million would be spent by year’s end. But the need for help will continue.

“We now have a whole program set up to funnel millions of dollars to tenants and landlords,” he said. “This issue predates the pandemic and it’s going to continue after. The question is whether we’re going to continue to fund it, or not.”