- Millions of Americans report difficulty paying their rent amid the pandemic.
- A growing pot of federal aid money helps them access cash to get caught up.
Between the federal stimulus package passed in December and the one making its way through Congress, there could soon be more than $45 billion in financial assistance available to those who've fallen behind on their rent.
All states have already been allocated funds from a $25 billion pot of federal money included in the earlier relief bill, and the $1.9 trillion stimulus package in the works and expected to pass this month sets aside another $20 billion.
Advocates say the assistance could help millions of Americans stay in their homes during the pandemic. However, they also worry some people will run into issues trying to access the funds.
That's because the process of applying for the money varies state by state, and the rollout of the programs hasn't been quick. While the first round of $25 billion in rental assistance was passed more than two months ago, just 15 states have begun giving the money out, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
"But new programs are opening regularly," said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The best way to increase your odds of getting the assistance is to stay informed about the rules, experts say. Here's what you need to know.
Am I eligible?
To qualify for the assistance, at least one member in your household has to be eligible for unemployment benefits or attest in writing that they've lost income or incurred significant expenses due to the pandemic.
You will 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, though 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 more.
Are the funds available now?
Not all states have set up there rental assistance program yet, but all states should eventually have one.
"If individuals are in a state where the program has not opened, they should check to see if their locality is offering a rental assistance program," Yentel said.
How do I apply?
"Where or how to apply will vary city by city," said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University.
Many areas already had existing rental assistance funds, and it will be through one of these that you apply for the new aid. In other cases, new programs will be created to disburse the money, Benfer said.
"Renters should contact local housing groups, their representatives or the local 211/311 lines to identify programs and learn how to apply," she added.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a database of rental assistance programs, too.
Your landlord can also apply for you but must get your signature and provide you with a copy of the application if they do so.
How much could I get?
"Many programs established under the Treasury's $25 billion do not have funding caps," Yentel said. "Rather, tenants are restricted based on how many months of assistance they can receive."
Some programs allow 12 months, others 15. The pot of money in President Joe Biden's stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, would allow people to access payments for up to 18 months of rent.
In some cases, you can get funds to cover future rent payments, but only if there's a plan to address any debts first.
The funds are paid to your landlord. If your landlord refuses to accept the funds, you may be able to get them directly.
I'm worried about eviction. What should I do?
Apply for the funds immediately.
Also, understand your rights. Most renters should be allowed to stay in their homes at least through the end of March, thanks to the president's extension of an order announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September that made evictions for nonpayment illegal.
To evoke that protection, you'll need to attest on a declaration form that you meet a few requirements, such as expecting to earn less than $99,000 in the 2020-2021 calendar year.
"If a tenant cannot pay the rent, they should provide the declaration to their property owner as soon as possible," Benfer said.
In addition to the CDC ban, some states have issued their own eviction protections. Get informed about any of those protections that apply to you.
One study in New Orleans found that more than 65% of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, compared with fewer than 15% of those who did have a lawyer in court.
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