States struggle to get rent relief to tenants amid pandemic

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Bonney Ginett sifts through paperwork for her application to a federally-funded program to help pay back rent Thursday, March 18, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Ginett, whose massage therapy business dried up during the pandemic, applied for help in July and said she was denied in October because she failed to prove loss of income. The 65-year-old New York City resident now owes more than $26,000 in back rent on her one-bedroom apartment and fears eviction. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last July that New York would spend $100 million in federal coronavirus relief to help cash-strapped tenants pay months of back rent and avert evictions.

By the end of October, the state had doled out only about $40 million, reaching 15,000 of the nearly 100,000 people looking for help. More than 57,000 applicants were denied because of criteria set by lawmakers that many said was difficult to meet.

New York's experience played out nationwide, with states failing to spend tens of millions of federal dollars aimed at helping renters avoid eviction. Burdensome requirements, poorly administered programs and landlords refusing to cooperate meant tens of thousands of tenants never got assistance. Some states also shifted funding away from rental relief, fearing they'd miss a year-end mandate to spend the money — a deadline that got extended.

The problem, housing advocates said, was that the federal government didn't specifically earmark any of the coronavirus aid for rental relief, leaving states scrambling to set up programs with no guidance on how the money should be allocated. As much as $3.43 billion in federal aid was spent on rental assistance, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition. But advocates said more should have been done, given tenants faced as much as $34 billion in unpaid rent through January, according to a report released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies.

States' rental relief programs “were a very mixed success. It was sort of a patchwork of programs,” Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in February. “There was a lot of experimentation — some successful, some not.”

Several states have since made changes, hoping to be better positioned to handle their portion of more than $45 billion in rental assistance coming from Congress in the coming months.

Last year, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kansas were among the states that struggled to distribute rental assistance. Kansas set aside $35 million but siphoned off $15 million for other uses, realizing only on Dec. 27 that it had more time to spend the money.

Mississippi allocated $18 million for rental relief but committed less than $3 million by December. The state said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined the grant program it relied on could not help tenants behind on rent, only those at risk of homelessness. A HUD spokesman denied that, saying the money could be used for rental aid.