Reimagining Emergency Financial Assistance
From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, housing advocates have worried about an “eviction tsunami,” a housing stability crisis driven by pandemic-related income loss and unpaid rent. It appears that eviction wave is here. The last protections under Minnesota’s eviction moratorium were lifted in June, around the same time that most federally-funded Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs closed. Now, evictions are being filed at historically high rates, and courts in the Twin Cities region are backlogged with cases. While the eviction process typically unfolds over fourteen to twenty days, wait times for eviction court hearings are reaching many weeks or, in some jurisdictions, several months.
What does that mean for households who are falling behind on rent?
With most federally-funded ERA programs now closed, renters at risk of eviction are once again directed to apply for emergency financial assistance from what we consider “safety net” programs – the longstanding public resources that function to catch households in crisis and preserve housing stability.
But in Minnesota, the “safety net” for renters is a patchwork of different programs that can be difficult to navigate and do not guarantee timely support. This safety net is largely made up of the state-run Family Homelessness Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP) as well as county-run Emergency Assistance and Emergency General Assistance programs. Eligibility rules and approval processes vary widely across programs and across County jurisdictions, and are often confusing and time-consuming to navigate for a family in crisis. It is difficult to know which programs are right for your situation, how much time the application and approval process will require, and whether or not you will ultimately receive help. Many renters fall through the cracks of this system, unnecessarily falling further behind on rent and facing eviction. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color households are impacted most, as they are disproportionately housing cost-burdened and most likely to face eviction.
We believe a better system is possible.
Over the last two years, COVID response programs adopted new approaches in deploying rent assistance funds in order to meet the urgent needs of the pandemic. Housing assistance programs funded by the CARES Act in 2020 and the ERA programs of 2021 and 2022 administered historic amounts of assistance, stabilizing thousands of renters and landlords who were facing financial hardship and housing instability due to the pandemic. Federal guidelines allowed ERA programs to adopt new rules – such as paying prospective rent and using proxy zip codes to verify need – with the intention of streamlining support and reducing barriers to access. The pandemic pushed the housing system to do things differently, proving it can adapt in many ways.
Across the housing system, all of us – program administrators, supporting nonprofits, renters, landlords, policymakers, etc. – have collectively learned a great deal about what works and what can be improved in the delivery of emergency financial assistance.
Now, we see a historic opportunity to apply these learnings to the permanent emergency financial assistance system and, together, create a stronger safety net that effectively preserves housing for households in crisis.
For Family Housing Fund, our commitment to strengthening the safety net is informed by our years of work to improve rental housing stability. When implementing our court-based eviction prevention strategy prior to the pandemic, we saw how challenging it can be to access emergency financial assistance. With the goal of intervening upstream in the eviction process, we examined the county-run Emergency Assistance (EA) and Emergency General Assistance (EGA) programs in the Twin Cities metro region, as well as St. Louis County (Duluth area) and Olmsted County (Rochester area), to understand the program policies, procedures, and opportunities for improvement.
Building on this research and engagement with county and state leaders, Family Housing Fund partnered with HousingLink, CliftonLarsonAllen, and several local jurisdictions to administer three COVID rent assistance programs: a CARES-Act funded program in 2020 with Hennepin and Dakota Counties, the Zero Balance Project (an ERA program with the Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, and Dakota County, in which landlords initiated the application process), and a renter-initiated ERA program with Dakota County in 2021 and 2022.
From these experiences, we are reflecting on what a strong, effective safety net should look like:
1 . A strong safety net will consolidate emergency financial resources into a simple framework or platform that allows for one-stop service. Whereas the system is currently fragmented and confusing, we hope to eliminate the need for families in crisis to dedicate scarce time chasing down emergency assistance that they deserve and are entitled to. Rather than burdening households with the “social service runaround,” the onus should be on the system to navigate complex funding sources and eligibility rules to ensure families receive the help they need.
2. A strong safety net will encourage people to seek help early. Currently, there are certain eligibility requirements for some programs – such as evidence of a missed rent payment, an eviction filing, or denial from another assistance program – that force households to wait until their situation becomes dire before they can access emergency resources. Such rules are costly to the housing system, waste precious time for renters, and can worsen a family’s housing situation instead of stabilizing housing. Requiring an eviction action to be filed is especially harmful; the filing stays on the renters’ record, damaging their future housing options, and an assistance award may not be approved in time to prevent an eviction judgment at court. (Typically, the eviction process unfolds in 14 days, while the stated timeframe to notify an applicant of an EA/EGA award decision can vary from 5 to 30 days.) Instead of these perverse incentives, households should be encouraged to request assistance as soon as they know they may not be able to pay the next month’s rent.
3. A strong safety net will be able to learn, and will eliminate the scarcity model of program management. At present, renters in crisis are often turned away from applying for emergency financial assistance when county staff make programs unavailable for portions of the month as a means of managing a finite annual program allocation. The resulting system is available on an occasional and arbitrary basis, and fails to capture the true needs facing communities across our region. Instead, the system should encourage applications for help from all households in crisis, to inform timely allocation of resources to these and other housing stability programs, and to help local and state leadership and community members understand and respond to needs in each community through the course of each month and year.
These are the themes percolating at the Family Housing Fund, but we know there is much more to explore and learn.
We are embarking on a collaborative process to engage and convene housing partners, community-based organizations, public sector stakeholders, and people with lived experience of housing instability. Together, we can capture and leverage all that the housing sector has collectively learned from COVID assistance programs, co-create a unified vision for a better system, and begin working toward the necessary process and policy changes that will make that vision a reality.
This is an incredible moment of public will and resolve to rebuild the systems that have been holding housing inequities in place. We aspire to harness this moment to transform the emergency financial assistance system into a system that effectively preserves housing stability for those who need it most. A system that centers the needs and perspectives of the people it serves, including and especially BIPOC renters. A system that responds with the urgency that a crisis deserves and provides help early, rather than forcing households to wait until they are facing eviction or homelessness. A system that takes responsibility for finding help for families, instead of placing the burden on families in crisis. We look forward building this system together.