In response to COVID-19, and throughout the pandemic year, everyone has had to make changes. Routines. Work. School. Childcare. Travel. Time. Businesses have been forced to adapt just to stay afloat. Governments have modified policies and sought to fill in gaps to keep people safe and healthy. Change has been truly the only constant. Importantly, some changes have been good.
When looking back, what changes, whether at the individual or organizational level, are worth keeping: How we think about how we spend our time and resources? How we think about and use our space at home and work? How our routines have improved work-life balance? How business practices have empowered employees to be more productive through increased flexibility and enhanced support? How we have increased investment in the lowest income households, who need it most? How we have shifted to non-congregate shelter environments? How COVID has reframed the concept of housing as healthcare?
One year ago, the Building Bridges blog launched a series on short-term housing and homelessness interventions enacted in response to COVID-19 that could become long-term “business as usual” practices. One year later, this new blog series will reflect on each of the six potential short-term-to-long-term interventions; provide an update with examples from other communities; and share what this could ultimately mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
SHORT-TERM TO LONG-TERM INTERVENTION #1: EVICTION PREVENTION
Focused on the topic of eviction prevention, this post was released prior to the first (of two) national eviction moratoria in response to COVID-19. The first moratorium was enacted as part of the CARES Act; it became effective on March 27, 2020, expired on July 24, 2020, and covered only properties participating in federal assistance programs or with federally backed financing. According to a recent comparative analysis of the national eviction moratoria, it is estimated the initial moratorium covered between 28% and 46% of occupied rental units nationally.
It is important to note that some states, like North Carolina, implemented their own eviction moratoria to gap the difference. North Carolina Executive Order No. 142 expanded the CARES Act moratorium by temporarily freezing all residential evictions due to a failure to pay rent, fees, or other charges, between May 30, 2020, and June 21, 2020. Then, on September 4, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) enacted a federal eviction federal moratorium on residential evictions due to nonpayment of rent. It has since been extended multiple times, with the most recent extension set to expire June 30, 2021.
Last year, the blog post pointed out that while the eviction moratoria are designed to facilitate social distancing or, if needed, self-quarantining or isolating at home, what happens when households, especially those who are already precariously housed, cannot pay what is owed? How will landlords be compensated for loss of income due to rent? How will landlords make their own debt payments? How does this impact current low-income households applying for housing?
Last year’s blog also spotlighted the 2009 nationwide prevention assistance efforts enacted in response to the economic recession: the creation of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). HPRP provided communities across the United States with a “range of flexible financial tools to prevent homelessness as well as to assist in re-housing homeless households.” Under HPRP, financial assistance could be used to pay back rent and utilities as well as moving costs, security deposits, and could provide up to 18 months of rental assistance.
According to research from the national Urban Institute, there were estimated to be over 10 million renters behind, owing $57 billion in rent as of January 2021. The analysis indicates that each renter is behind by 4 months; and owes $5,600 in combined rent and utility arrears. This estimate accounts for the disbursement of $17.4B in housing-related assistance provided through the CARES Act, which included support to existing programs.
Recognizing the tidal wave of evictions looming on the horizon, additional federal support was allocated. This includes the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), which became law on December 27, 2020, and provides $25B in rental assistance through the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program. The ERA program, like HPRP, can be used for back rent and utilities as well as for rent moving forward. The most recent revision requires ERA program funding to be prioritized for households with incomes at or below 50% AMI and who are currently experiencing unemployment. ERA funding can also be used to support households for up to 18 months. Unlike previous housing-related assistance, ERA program funds were given directly to states and local governments to administer through existing or newly created rental assistance programs. An additional $21.55B ERA program infusion was added through the American Rescue Plan, enacted on March 11, 2021. Thus, the new combined total for federal rental assistance issued is $46.55B, which falls $10.45B short of the $57 price tag calculated in January 2021.
An analysis of over 200 ERA programs funded with COVID-19 relief dollars, as conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiatives, the NYU Furman Center, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, found that leveraging existing programs, networks, partnerships, and infrastructure contributed to faster funding allocations to the households who needed it; flexible funding and/or programming enabled quicker funding distribution; targeting assistance to households with the lowest income was more effective at distributing assistance than programs targeting households with moderate incomes; and programs with increased or more stringent requirements for landlord participation resulted in serving fewer households. The February 10, 2021 Building Bridges blog post described three community best practice examples from Wake County, North Carolina; Harris County, Texas; and King County, Washington.
Research has shown that eviction moratoria have helped struggling households keep their housing and, in some cases, improved well-being. But eviction moratoria are just one side of the equation. They do nothing to pick up the tab for what is owed, which hurts landlords, too. And, while the eviction moratoria stop eviction proceedings from starting, the rent comes due every month.
Conversely, rental assistance is also just one side of the equation. Rental assistance, alone, does not fully protect all the renter households who face eviction, because there is simply not enough. According to the Urban Institute analysis, the households who are behind on their rent are also among the most vulnerable in the community: households of color; experiencing unemployment; and having the lowest incomes. These are, in fact, the same households who faced housing instability and homelessness before COVID-19.
To that end, broad legal protections provided through eviction moratoria must be coupled with rental assistance to be truly effective. Beyond that, communities must consider how to make up the gap. One example that can make a difference now is for communities to prioritize any new Housing Choice Vouchers allocated through the American Rescue Plan for households at risk of eviction and/or experiencing homelessness and who have the lowest incomes. Targeting this new, deeper rental assistance in the form of Housing Choice Vouchers to the households with the greatest need allows the shorter-term ERA program dollars to go farther. It also enables communities to better align assistance with demonstrated need.
At bottom, one year later, the question is no longer, “Should eviction prevention be a more than a short-term intervention?” COVID-19 has shown how essential eviction prevention is to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the community. The federal government has affirmed eviction prevention as a key intervention, through multiple infusions of resources and targeted policies. Along the way, communities have come to see how eviction prevention is both effective and cost-effective, and must absolutely be a core component of the housing assistance ecosystem.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s focus on prevention assistance (as a system) started long before the COVID-19 pandemic. This focus has only sharpened since the pandemic began impacting households in our community. During the past year, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services has led a community planning process called “Evaluate Upstream: Optimizing the Homelessness Prevention Assistance System in Charlotte-Mecklenburg”. “Evaluate Upstream” is a homelessness prevention system change effort intended to address the structural factors that impact access to, and sustainability of, housing.
“Evaluate Upstream” is nearing the completion of its final phase. After almost a year of data collection, community engagement, and plan development in support of this effort, a draft of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Evaluate Upstream Blueprint for Homelessness Prevention will be presented during a public feedback session on Friday, April 16 from 8:30am to 10:00am. The presentation will include a high-level overview of the process to develop the blueprint and outline of recommendations and key components. In addition, attendees will be able to provide feedback to ensure that blueprint is both actionable and sustainable.
Please consider participating in this important step; you can register in advance by clicking this link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Cross-sector, community-wide ownership of the Evaluate Upstream Blueprint is essential to successfully address housing instability in the community.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.