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Why $46 Billion in Rental Assistance Couldn’t Prevent Evictions

Over the past several months, the White House and Treasury Department have been racing to deal with the program’s problems, repeatedly revising guidelines to allow tenants to receive payouts with a minimum of documentation, while enlisting state judges and even law school students to help tenants delay or prevent their evictions.

Gene Sperling, who is in charge of overseeing pandemic relief programs for President Biden, estimated that despite the shortcomings of rental aid so far, about 40 percent of vulnerable tenants in the country are either receiving assistance or temporarily protected from eviction by state and local moratoriums.

“If lower-performing states and localities don’t pick up the pace, there will be a meaningful and painful gap for hundreds of thousands of families,” Mr. Sperling said. “That is unacceptable and it’s why we are still pushing as hard as we can.”

No administration has previously embraced a similar role in attempting to halt evictions, which are overseen by state courts.

The federal government’s main rental subsidy is the Section 8 voucher program, which pays private landlords and nonprofit groups the difference between market rate and the amount a tenant can pay. Funding has been stagnant for decades, and waiting lists of up to 10 years are not uncommon in many cities.

“We have a shortage of rental housing, a secular decline in affordability, and cost-burdened renters have very little buffer to aside funds for a rainy day,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. “The pandemic only underscored the need for a standing federal emergency rental program.”

But Section 8, with its laborious certification requirements, did not provide a useful template for the new emergency rental assistance funds. So when the virus hit — and the money started raining down — the federal government, states and localities essentially had to invent an entirely new system, a process that would have otherwise involved years of trial and error.

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