COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance: Analysis of a National Survey of Programs

While estimates of the exact amount vary, studies agree that American renters now owe tens of billions of dollars in back rent, while many others have exhausted their savings, borrowed from family or friends, or used credit cards to keep up. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted in March 2020, provided two main funding streams that states and local jurisdictions could use for emergency rental assistance during these unprecedented times: Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG-CV). As of midOctober, 44 states (including Washington, D.C.) and 310 local jurisdictions chose to devote roughly $3.9 billion to emergency rental assistance, which falls significantly short of most estimates of COVID-19- related needs.

This research brief presents the results of an in-depth survey of 220 COVID-19 rental assistance programs across the country. The survey launched in August 2020 and collected responses during the months August, September, and October. Thus, most of the programs surveyed (about 80%) relied, at least in part, on CARES Act funding. In December 2020, the researchers asked survey respondents to provide updated figures for program enrollment and eligibility; 70 programs did so.

This is a key moment to learn from the state and local COVID-19 rental assistance programs launched in 2020. The new coronavirus relief package signed into law on December 27, 2020 includes $25 billion in rent and utility relief to provide some assistance to struggling renters. Once again, the difficult task of administering these funds will fall to state and local governments, many of which have never provided direct rental assistance, or will need to scale up their 2020 efforts significantly. The enormity of the need for this assistance, and the wave of evictions that may occur if households do not receive it, makes the next round of programs even more urgent.

This brief begins with an overview of the characteristics of the programs captured in the survey. The second section examines key challenges that these programs encountered. The third section describes a set of program outcome measures based on survey responses that help to assess the relative success of these programs. Finally, the fourth section explores the relationship between program characteristics and outcomes and provides critical “lessons learned” that should inform future iterations of emergency rental assistance programs.