Personal Finance

With national eviction protection gone, applying for rental assistance is key. Here's what you need to know

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Key Points
  • Millions of struggling renters are no longer protected from eviction.
  • Advocates say it's more important than ever that they apply for rental assistance.
Jianbi Chen | iStock | Getty Images

Now that struggling renters are no longer protected by a national ban on evictions, it has become even more pressing for those households to get approved for federal rental assistance.

Congress has allocated more than $45 billion in rental assistance to address the crisis hitting tenants and their landlords, but the money has been painfully slow to reach families. Seven months after those funds were approved, 16 states have apparently spent less than 5% of their share.

"Six and a half million households are behind on rent and at heightened risk of eviction," said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "That number has barely budged since March, which tells us all we need to know about the unacceptably slow pace of spending by many states and cities."

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Advocates blame the snail-paced rollout of the funds on complicated and difficult applications and short-staffing across the hundreds of organizations tasked with giving out the aid. Still, they say renters should not give up on getting the help, which can help them avoid an eviction.

Just applying can help you stay in your home longer.

In at least five states, those who've put in an application but haven't received the funding yet are entitled to some protection from being pushed out of their homes. Those states are Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon and Washington state. Some of these policies offer renters a lot more time. Those with a pending application for federal rental assistance in Minnesota, for example, can't be evicted until June 2022.

Here's what they need to know about accessing the relief.

How do I apply?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a state-by-state list of the 493 programs giving out the federal money. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has a new online tool to help you apply for the aid.

Who qualifies?

To be eligible for the funding, at least one member of your household has to qualify for unemployment benefits or attest in writing that they've lost income or incurred significant expenses due to the pandemic. You'll also need to demonstrate a risk of homelessness, which may include a past-due rent or utility notice.

In addition, your income level for 2020 can't exceed 80% of your area's median income, although states have been directed to prioritize applicants who fall at 50% or lower, as well as those who've been out of work for 90 days or longer.

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Some state and local programs have set additional priorities, and you may want to search for those.

For example, one fund in California is targeting the relief at Native American households. Another in Oklahoma is sending the money out first to those over the age of 62.

How much could I get?

You could receive up to 18 months of assistance, including a mix of payments for back and future rent.

If you've already been approved for rental funds but continue to be behind, you can typically apply again as long as you're requesting relief for a different period of time. The money usually goes to your landlord, unless they refuse to comply (more on that below).

I'm having problems getting assistance. Why?

To begin, you're not alone.

Housing advocates point to a number of problems with the rollout of the assistance, particularly around some arduous application processes.

Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said he saw one application that was 45 pages long. Another required renters to document their income over the last six months.

"Public officials are more concerned about so-called scammers getting this money than they are about the people who truly need it," said Dan Rose, an assistant professor of sociology at Winston-Salem State University and an organizer with Housing Justice Now.

If you're unable to meet a documentation requirement for one program's application or are denied from a certain fund, look for other rental assistance resources in your area, experts say.

It may also be worth reaching out to the organization and explaining why you can't come up with a certain form. The most recent guidance from the Treasury Department encourages programs to take people at their word, and more than half of them now allow for that so-called self-attestation.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a case worker could work with the tenant," Aurand said.

Yet another issue is that some landlords are refusing to accept the money from the programs because they don't want to agree to its terms, which can include a ban on evicting that tenant or raising their rent for a window of time.

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Running into that problem?

Experts recommend that you ask the program if you can receive the funds directly. More than a quarter of programs are now allowing for assistance to go to tenants.

I'm worried about eviction. What should I do?

Beyond applying for rental assistance as soon as possible, familiarize yourself with your rights. Those will vary by state.

Most states have lifted their eviction bans by now, but some are still in place.

In California, where as many as 1.6 million renters may be in arrears, most landlords can't move forward with evictions until October. Most renters in New Jersey can't be kicked out of their homes until January.

If your landlord has moved to evict you, try to get a lawyer. You can find low-cost or free legal help with an eviction in your state at Lawhelp.org. In some places, including Washington state, Maryland and Connecticut, tenants facing eviction now have a right to counsel.

Are you struggling to get approved for rental assistance? If you're willing to share your story, please email me at annie.nova@nbcuni.com