The American Rescue Program provides federal funds for rental and housing assistance.
Provisions in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11 could play a huge role in helping to address the ongoing eviction and homelessness crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The American Rescue Plan allocates more than $27 billion to help renters, including $21.55 billion in emergency rental assistance, $5 billion in emergency housing vouchers to be issued via public housing authorities, $750 million for tribal housing, and $100 million for rural housing.
Experts agree a housing crisis is looming. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that upwards of 10 million American families are behind on rent during the pandemic, and studies have shown that 1 in 5 Americans are struggling to make rent.
Through the American Rescue Program provisions, the federal funds for rental assistance will be distributed to states directly, as well as to local governments in locations with populations over 200,000. These state and local government grantees are then required to set up programs to which eligible households can apply for rental assistance, or to which landlords can apply for the funds on behalf of eligible households.
To demonstrate eligibility, those applying to their state or local government for federal rental assistance must show they either qualified for unemployment benefits during the pandemic or lost income or experienced other financial hardship. They must also demonstrate that they are at risk of homelessness or other housing instability during the pandemic, and must have a combined household income of less than 80% of area median income.
An August report by the nonprofit Aspen Institute found that some 30 million to 40 million Americans were at risk of eviction.
Black and brown communities have been especially hard-hit by housing instability during the pandemic. Census data from 2019 indicates that 30% of white American families rent their homes, while 60% of Black families and 53% of those identifying as Hispanic do. And while only 13% of Americans are Black, they represent 35% of all tenants evicted thus far during the pandemic.
According to a report by released by the Urban Institute, in 2020, 1 in 2 households identifying as Hispanic reported concern about their ability to pay rent, while more than 1 in 4 Black households did the same. Approximately 25% of white households reported such a concern. The same study found that Black and Hispanic renters faced threats of eviction at four times the rate of white renters during the pandemic.
Also suffering unprecedented rates of eviction, housing instability, and homelessness during the pandemic are women and mothers, particularly those of color, according to a report published by the New Republic.
A 2020 University of Washington study found that women are 11% more likely to be evicted than men, and a National Women's Law Project analysis found that Black women in particular are at increased risk of pandemic-related housing instability, as they are twice as likely to have missed rent payments as white renters.
And having children is the greatest predictor of whether one will experience eviction, the New Republic report notes. Some 37% of homeless families during the pandemic have been composed of a single mother with children, and 50% of housing shelter residents have the same family structure.
Housing instability stressors have been an extra burden on pregnant women; a recent Princeton University study found that pregnant women who faced eviction proceedings during the pandemic were more likely to give birth prematurely and have infants of low birth weight.
An eviction or attempted eviction on a tenant's record can make it next to impossible to obtain future housing, experts say.
"Once you've been filed against for eviction, not even evicted necessarily but just having that filing on your record, it's going to make finding your next apartment that much more difficult," Peter Hepburn of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University told NPR.
In addition to the new relief afforded by the American Rescue Plan, advocates across the country are fighting for other initiatives that could help vulnerable groups facing housing instability.
Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, who serves as a co-director of 9to5 Colorado, a nonprofit focused on the rights of working women, told the Colorado Sun, "Prior to COVID, people were paying more than half of their income toward rent. What COVID did is shined a light on how vulnerable renters were if they went without just one or two paychecks."
She added, "I don't think anyone imagined what would happen to have weeks and weeks of unemployment."
Time magazine reported that housing advocates in New Orleans are calling for direct payments by the government to landlords and banks, cancellation of rent altogether, and a stop to eviction court proceedings. They are calling the eviction crisis a public health concern.
Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center's policy director Maxwell Ciardullo told the New Orleans nonprofit news site The Lens, "Before the pandemic, there was already a deep connection between housing insecurity and public health. When people are worried about their possessions being put on the street, there are all sorts of negative health outcomes associated with that. It's a traumatic event."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.