Renters’ rights groups rallied in Boston outside the Massachusetts State House in January 2020, months before the COVID-19 outbreaks (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

From Boston to San Jose, new initiatives help thousands of renters face COVID-19. But low funding, poor tenants’ protections, and overwhelmed systems have housing advocates worried the programs are falling short.

On April 1, Mayra Molina didn’t have the $2700 she needed to pay rent. When the novel coronavirus started spreading in Boston, the families that employ her as a housekeeper called one after another to tell her not to come to work. Her two sons, with whom she shares her East Boston apartment, had their construction jobs canceled, too. 

When Molina heard that the city was launching a rent assistance program, she hoped it would help her cover next month’s rent, at least. But she has gotten no response since she applied weeks ago. Because she’s undocumented, she’s not eligible for the stimulus check, nor for unemployment benefits. The situation is causing her insomnia and severe anxiety, which spikes her blood pressure, she told the Appeal: Political Report. When she went to a clinic, a counselor told her  not to worry about the rent, she said. “Well, that’s what worries us all, I think.”

Molina is one of the 31 percent of Americans who couldn’t pay rent at the beginning of this month. With more than 22 million having lost their jobs in the last four weeks, that number is likely to be even higher on May 1. 

The stimulus money that is now arriving in people’s bank accounts will do little to quell the crisis. With the median monthly rent in the nation hovering at just over $1,600, $1,200 government checks won’t cut it for many renters. 

Cities across the country have taken quick action to try to fill the gap. From Louisville to Albuquerque to New Orleans, they have quickly shuffled around their budgets to pool funds for renters in need during the COVID-19 crisis. 

According to a list compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), more than 20 municipalities and counties are now rolling out some form of emergency rental assistance. A handful of states are setting up relief programs as well. These initiatives, which are either wholly new programs or expansions of existing ones, have tended to take the form of cash for renters who can show that they’ve been economically impacted by the shutdowns. 

Thousands are already benefiting, or will soon. But insufficient funding and a lack of tenant protections have housing advocates worried that these initiatives are falling short in addressing the magnitude of the present housing crisis, especially as long as the federal government fails to step up. 

In nearly every case, temporary rental assistance programs have been immediately overwhelmed. In Orange County, Florida (Orlando), a $1.8 million renters fund meant to aid 1,500 was flooded with more than 20,000 applications within 10 days. The online application portal in Santa Clara County (San Jose) collapsed after receiving more than 1,500 applications in three hours. And in Boston, the city’s emergency rental assistance program received 5,500 applications from people it verified as city residents, but only 800 residents will be able to receive a slice of a new $3 million fund. 

“We all realize that it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket,” said Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots community organization in Boston. “Really tiny.”

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Boston’s city council announced its emergency initiative in early April by expanding an existing program designed to assist families at risk of evictions. Bostonians who demonstrate financial need can apply for a one-time payment of up to $4,000 to be used for rent. The city will send a check directly to landlords, said Katie Forde, operations manager for Boston’s Office of Housing Stability. Forde added that the program is restricted to people ineligible for the newly extended federal unemployment benefits so as to gear support toward undocumented people and people with informal employment cut off from those federal funds. Elsewhere, similar programs are open either to anyone, or to anyone who can show a documented loss of income.

In Boston, the rush of applications immediately after the system opened proved just how much more was needed. 

Given the huge demand, the city converted the program into a lottery system within a couple of days, confirming that many people who fit its criteria would not get assistance.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee, told the Political Report that even the lottery system plays favorites. Landlords who own more property, and so have more tenants entering the lottery, are likelier to end up recouping the rents they are owed and benefiting from the program. “Why weren’t landlords who live in their units prioritized because we’re also saving them from foreclosure?”, she asked.

San Jose has one of the largest pots of rental assistance funds in the country, after it received millions from private companies like Cisco, Facebook, and Zoom. The fund of more than $11 million was distributed among 4,000 families. Still, even here, more than 9,000 families remain on the waiting list, and calls keep flowing in, said Matt King, an organizer with Sacred Heart Community Service, a nonprofit that administers the fund.

The vast numbers of tenants who lack assistance show, advocates say, that any rental assistance program strong enough to keep families in their homes will require significant federal intervention. 

The NLIHC estimates that it would cost approximately $76.1 billion over the next 12 months to provide relief to the 11.5 million people who are or will become severely burdened by the costs of housing, which it defines as spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent. If relief were extended to renters experiencing less severe burdens—defined as spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent—the cost could reach $99.5 billion.

The CARES Act added $3 billion to federal housing programs such as Section 8 vouchers, which help the lowest-income Americans. But these funds are insufficient to meet even pre-COVID demand, and millions who are newly unable to pay rent will be ineligible to apply. Congressional Democrats proposed allocating $100 billion to short-term rental assistance, but that did not make it into the CARES Act. Groups like NLIHC are pushing for such funding to be included in future stimulus packages. 

The CARES Act also provided $5 billion in supplemental Community Development Block Grant funding, which are federal grants that localities can use for housing or economic development projects. Some have said they will use it towards rent assistance. But there’s no requirement to do so, and no guidance for cities in how to administer such assistance should they choose to. 

“We’re kind of in this difficult place of trying to fit some square pegs into round holes,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which worked with the state to develop a $5 million assistance program.

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Even if an influx of federal funding materializes in later federal stimulus bills, it would still leave some housing advocates’ biggest questions about temporary rental assistance unanswered.

Tenants with the greatest needs for immediate relief may be the least able to access them, for one. Many of the emerging assistance programs require proof of COVID-related loss of income, which many low-income workers cannot provide. 

“For undocumented families or people working informally under the table, … it’s really hard to show that you’ve suffered a loss of income,” said Michael Trujillo, staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, referring to San Jose’s temporary rental assistance program. “So any kind of documentation requirement is really creating a barrier.” King, the Sacred Heart organizer, said they are conducting outreach to undocumented people to help them apply for future rounds of assistance. 

Edwards, the Boston councilor, also worries that if relief funding is not tied to strong renter protections, it will function as a handout to landlords, without minimizing risks for tenants. “The check goes to the landlord,” she noted. “And if the landlord takes that check and still can evict somebody or raise their rent, I have a problem.” 

Housing advocates agree that rental assistance programs could backfire, paying landlords to keep tenants in their homes for a month or two, only to evict them a couple of months later for non-payment of back rent or future rent. 

Lawmakers in Massachusetts passed a long-awaited bill this week establishing a statewide eviction moratorium, which would stop evictions for 120 days or for 45 days after the state of emergency is lifted, whichever comes first. Dozens of states and cities now have similar moratoriums in place, in addition to a national moratorium on evictions in properties with federally backed mortgages. 

But most of these policies extend only through April or May, and some landlords are violating them or preparing to rush future evictions, which has left renters at continued risk. The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute estimated earlier in the month that more than 500 eviction cases had been filed since the state’s Housing Court closed to nonessential business; the same is true in other states. “It would be an utter embarrassment if we found out that despite giving out all of this money evictions still go higher,” Edwards said. 

Amy Schur, campaign director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a housing justice organization, wants measures that ensure that those distributing rental assistance “get a commitment from the landlord to not move to immediately evict the tenant after the rental assistance ends. Or else it is half a Band-Aid, not even a Band-Aid.”

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Such concerns are pushing some advocates to demand something unprecedented: canceling rent altogether. 

“It’s unconscionable to expect people to pay for things when you’re not allowing them to work, when the greater good of the public health relies on people staying in their homes,” said Dianne Enriquez, who directs housing campaign work at the Center for Popular Democracy. She argues that even broad rental assistance programs would leave too many without assistance, and set up mass evictions. 

She said, “the solution is to completely alleviate the burden, to completely take off the need to pay anything at this moment.” 

The idea of cancelling rents is gaining traction in some of the most rent-burdened parts of the country. In San Jose, councilmembers introduced a proposal to waive rent for three months. With monthly rent in San Jose averaging $3,941, tenants unable to pay rent for three months will likely owe nearly $16,000 in back payments, the councilors argue. Lawmakers in New York and Pennsylvania are now championing legislation to cancel rent payment responsibilities during the crisis; New York’s efforts are backed by prominent Democrats such as U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. 

“If our solutions in this moment just include temporary rental assistance of the kind that we already had to get us back to normal, that’s insufficient,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All, a New York-based coalition that is pushing for rent suspensions. 

The coalition was fighting to promote affordable housing in the state well before COVID-19, and Weaver hopes that public authorities seize the moment as an opportunity to tackle longstanding challenges. “The housing problems that we have today existed before coronavirus and will exist after coronavirus, and we have an obligation in this moment to be demanding different things,” she said.

Housing Justice for All is also pushing lawmakers to include an option for landlords who are struggling financially to sell their building to the state government or else to turn them over to community land trusts, which are nonprofit local organizations that develop and maintain land for affordable housing. They enter long-term leases with homeowners to stabilize prices. 

This type of trust has been widely embraced by housing advocates in recent years as a way to take units out of the increasingly hostile private market and ensure affordability. In the present crisis, where mass foreclosures loom, the proposal has taken on a new urgency for those who wish to avoid a repeat of the 2008 crisis, when Wall Street took over such distressed properties. U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has also introduced it in Congress. 

Edwards agreed that policies adopted today cannot just be reduced to temporary measures for an exceptional time. “We had a housing crisis before COVID and all COVID did was pour gasoline on a very hot fire,” she said of Boston. “That’s all it did.”