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Congress Approved Rental Aid — But It'll Be Hard To Get It To Many Who Need It Most

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The $1.9 trillion COVID relief package poised to become law this week sets aside more than $20 billion in new rental assistance to keep people housed during the pandemic. That's on top of another $25 billion approved last December. States are only just starting to get that first round of money out, and it's run into some glitches, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: If there's one thing tenants and landlords agree on during this pandemic, it's that emergency rental assistance is sorely needed. Millions of Americans have been unable to pay their rent for months. And landlords, who have their own bills to pay, are also hurting.

TAMMY ESPONGE: We think, really, this is a positive step in the right direction for our landlords and our renters. So we are over-the-moon excited that they finally gave rental assistance.

FESSLER: Tammy Esponge runs the Apartment Association of New Orleans in Louisiana. She recently surveyed her members, who reported they had at least a million dollars in unpaid rent over the past year.

ESPONGE: Part of this program is paying arrears. On that survey, you know, we asked, how long has someone not paid? You heard anywheres (ph) from three to 12 months they have not paid rent.

FESSLER: So her group has been watching closely as Louisiana and its parishes start to roll out their emergency rental aid programs. Congress left many details up to local communities, so there's been some confusion and delay. Landlords want to make sure there aren't too many restrictions, while tenant advocates are pressing to make sure those who need help can actually get it.

Andreanecia Morris is executive director of HousingNOLA, a nonprofit group that promotes affordable housing. She's worried about simple logistics.

ANDREANECIA MORRIS: You're saying to someone whose landlord is about to evict them because they haven't paid in three, four, six, 12 months - do you think that person has consistent access to Internet? You think that they have a computer to fill out an application? You think that they have access to a phone?

FESSLER: Some programs, but not all, provide application help and options for tenants. Some forms are simple. Others are not. And the amount of aid is inconsistent. Some communities cover up to 12 months in back rent. Others cover less. Morris says one problem is that Congress distributed funds based on a state's overall population, not on the number of tenants they have.

MORRIS: It is a lot of money, but it's not enough - is the issue. And here in Louisiana, we're getting a little over $500 per renter.

FESSLER: While Wyoming is getting the equivalent of almost $3,000 per renter. Figuring out how to distribute these limited funds is a challenge. It's unclear, still, how people living in motels or mobile homes will be treated or if undocumented immigrants are eligible. Some landlords are reluctant to participate in the program because it limits their ability to evict a tenant. Their refusal to accept the aid is a problem for renters like Katherine Patterson, a single mother with a 3-year-old son in Kenner, La.

KATHERINE PATTERSON: I have until the end of the month to get out, so I'm looking for a new place right now.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

PATTERSON: So I don't know how that's going to work and - I love you, too, baby.

FESSLER: Patterson lost her job as a banquet server in the New Orleans Convention Center last March. Initially, her landlord tried to help, letting her do maintenance work to offset what she owed. But the property was sold, and the new owners want the full rent - $895 a month.

PATTERSON: They don't want partial payments. And now that my lease is coming up, they say that they don't have any legal obligation to renew my lease. And so they won't even accept any kind of money right now.

FESSLER: Even though Jefferson Parish agreed to cover her rent. Tammy Esponge of the apartment association called Patterson's case unfortunate. She says most landlords want to participate and notes that if they don't, tenants can still apply directly for aid. That's true, but it's not clear yet whether they'll get it or what they can do if they have no place to live. It's one of many questions communities are still trying to work out so they can get the first wave of money out the door before the next wave arrives.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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