Advancing Racial Equity in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs

Research & Policy | March 22nd 2021 |

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To explore inequities in housing insecurity and inaccessibility of housing assistance faced disproportionately by Black, Latino, and Native American renters—issues that existed prior to and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—the NYU Furman Center, The Housing Initiative at Penn, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition collaborated on a research brief: Advancing Racial Equity in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs. The study draws on interviews with program administrators as well as a survey of 220 “first-generation” COVID rental assistance programs, focusing on program design choices and implementation obstacles. The brief shares five key takeaways, and specific program examples from cities across the U.S., in order to advance equity in emergency rental assistance programs going forward.

Lesson 1: Ensure Program Funding is Allocated Based on Need

The federal allocation of assistance funds in the December COVID relief legislation was based on population share, rather than renter population share or share of the estimated need. For example, New York City will receive just 19 percent of the total rental assistance for the state; yet its estimated rental assistance need is 75 percent of the statewide total need. This dynamic is compounded by how per capita allocation will impact renters of color. As a share of all New York State renter households headed by Black or Latino individuals, Census data show that 74 percent and 80 percent reside in New York City, respectively. 

States with a large share of residents living in direct-allocation cities can make funding flows more equitable either by passing on an additional portion of state assistance to these cities, or by allowing people in large cities to apply to the state’s assistance program.

Lesson 2: Target and Prioritize Assistance to Vulnerable Groups

The statute authorizing $25 billion in emergency rental assistance funds from the December stimulus bill includes flexibility for administrators to target and prioritize vulnerable communities. Many of the state and local programs surveyed used this flexibility to adopt priorities to better target funds, including households with children, disadvantaged census tracts experiencing high rates of COVID infections or pandemic job losses. The report also warns that first-come, first-served processes, can disadvantage households without access to technology or with language barriers. The use of randomization and lottery processes can ensure more equitable distribution of funds.

Lesson 3: Invest in Outreach and Targeting

The pandemic poses significant challenges to administrators conducting community outreach. To reach communities with the greatest need, while navigating geographic, language, and technological barriers, the study’s authors noted the need for creative strategies. The most impactful outreach spanned the digital divide and reduced government mistrust and stigma through partnerships with nonprofits and community-based organizations. For example, in Chicago the first round of rental assistance resulted in few applications from immigrant populations. In its second round, administrators reported greater success resulting from its partnerships with immigrant-serving organizations.

Lesson 4: Simplify Applications and Documentation

Increasing awareness of emergency rental assistance is not enough; program administrators must also simplify their application and documentation requirements. Of surveyed programs, more than 70% cited incomplete applications as significant barriers for applicants, with documentation requirements serving as a major challenge. Removing the requirement of a lease to allow for informal rental agreements, allowing for self-attestation of income, providing support in filling out application forms, and clear instructions made available across multiple languages can all make the application process easier and more inclusive. 

Lesson 5: Monitor and Make Mid-Course Corrections

The study emphasizes the importance of tracking patterns and adapting programs to advance equity. Collection of demographic data including gender, age, race/ethnicity, as well as the neighborhoods of applicants can allow program administrators to monitor the impacts of the design process and outcomes. Case examples included analysis of data in Utah showing that only 34 percent of approved applications were tied to ZIP codes with the highest eviction rates. Through monitoring and mid-course correction, administrators can develop new strategies to increase equitable outcomes.


To close, the authors note that widespread housing affordability challenges predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and emergency rental assistance cannot address those issues fully. Yet, the lessons from the distribution of rental assistance during this crisis may be applicable in removing barriers from other systems that disproportionately impact communities of color as well as the most economically disadvantaged groups served. The early experience of cities and states across the country offer an opportunity for program administrators to redesign and advance equitable programs to address housing instability. 

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