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Most Of The $47 Billion Meant To Prevent Evictions Hasn't Reached Those Who Need It

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been more than six months since Congress approved a $47 billion plan to help people pay back rent and prevent evictions, and yet the majority of that money still hasn't reached the people who need it. NPR's Chris Arnold has been talking to landlords around the country and has this report.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Andrew Carroles (ph) owns 60 rental homes around Las Vegas. He says he doesn't want to evict tenants who've fallen behind during the pandemic, so he's been trying to help them apply for that emergency money to pay their back rent.

ANDREW CARROLES: We applied 10 times. I would say six different tenants, six different households - we applied about 10 times. And one application's been approved.

ARNOLD: Just one 1 out of 10. So for months, he says he's been calling the county program that's distributing the money.

CARROLES: Following up is a disaster. You call in, basically. You ask a receptionist, where are we at with this? And they tell you, you have to wait for a caseworker to call you. That's all there is to it.

ARNOLD: Around the country, if landlords grow too frustrated, collectively, they could start evicting a lot of people. More than 8 million Americans are still behind on their rents, and the Supreme Court has struck down a federal eviction moratorium. So everybody wants those billions of dollars from Congress to reach renters and landlords, but at last count, most of the money has not yet reached the people that need it. So what is the problem? Mark Surges (ph) is a landlord with 14 rental apartments and houses outside of Philadelphia.

MARK SURGES: I had three different tenants get into issues on being able to pay, been very empathetic to it. But at the same token, you know, we've got bills to pay ourselves.

ARNOLD: Surges says one of his tenants hadn't been able to catch up, and he was getting ready to file an eviction case against her. But she told him she'd applied for rental assistance, so he called the county program.

SURGES: This tenant's caseworker called me back. She was wonderful. I just - you know, I can't say enough. What she said was that, hey, you know, your tenant thinks she's got everything in, but she doesn't; I still need this one other hurdle kind of crossed.

ARNOLD: That right there is a big part of the problem. There are 500 different programs trying to distribute this money around the country, and many ask for more documentation than they actually need. Renters have trouble getting it all in or even understanding what's required - so lots of unnecessary hurdles. Now, in this case, it was just the one document, and Surges says that really helpful caseworker called him back right away.

SURGES: And then I was able to go back to the tenant with that and say, hey, how about I come down? I'll help you fill it out. And she got approved.

ARNOLD: But some landlords, of course, don't help renters navigate the process. April McNeal works with the Montgomery County program there in Pennsylvania.

APRIL MCNEAL: The goal in what I've read from Treasury is to make it as easy as possible.

ARNOLD: She says the Treasury Department's been telling states and counties to clear those hurdles out of the way. Get a photo of a driver's license or ID, a lease if someone has one, and just let the renters say, basically, I swear I need this help. McNeal says her county program has been doing that. But she suspects that elsewhere, for many state and local programs, it just goes against the grain of government to hand out a lot of money just like that.

MCNEAL: I think it is difficult for some to kind of swallow that because, typically, we need proof. We need proof. We need proof. We need proof.

ARNOLD: Groups tracking all this say many programs, though, are finally getting more streamlined, and that's good because, nationally, there are twice as many renters as usual behind on their rents. And in some places, eviction filings are now on the rise.

MCNEAL: The goal is to keep families and individuals from being homeless. It would be a nightmare if we had as many applicants as we have and let's say half of them get evicted.

ARNOLD: McNeal says getting the word out about this help is also critical. Some states are buying radio ads in different languages and sending out direct text messages. In many cities and towns, you can call the 211 or 311 local information number and be directed to the right program to get help.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.