Applying for Rental Assistance Isn't Easy. Here's What You Need to Know

Olga Kaya | iStock | Getty Images
  • Many people are running into problems trying to get the rental assistance allocated by Congress.
  • Here's what you need to know.

There are now more than 360 programs across the country providing money to renters who've fallen behind because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds total more than $45 billion and have been allocated by Congress in the last two major stimulus packages in the hopes of clearing up the country's enormous rental arrears.

Even as the public health crisis fades, more than 1 in 7 adult renters in the U.S. continue to report that they're behind on their housing payments. Among Black renters, the share increases to 1 in 5.

"Renters have been really hit hard by the pandemic," said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "The need is unprecedented."

More from Personal Finance:
These strategies can reduce the taxes you will pay on retirement accounts
Biden tax plan may lead to more Roth retirement accounts
1 in 10 Americans say they'll never financially recover from the Covid crisis

And with the national eviction moratorium set to end in a month, it's vital that funds are quickly distributed, Aurand added.

"When the moratorium expires, we could have millions of renters at risk of eviction," he said.

Here's what we know about the assistance.

Who qualifies?

To be eligible for the money at least one member in your household has to qualify for unemployment benefits or attest in writing that they've lost income or incurred significant expenses due to the pandemic. You will also need to demonstrate a risk of homelessness, which may include a past due rent or utility notice.

In addition, your income level for 2020 can't exceed 80% of your area's median income, though states have been directed to prioritize applicants who fall at 50% or lower, as well as those who've been out of work for 90 days or longer.

Some state and local programs have set additional priorities, and you may want to search for those.

For example, one fund in California is targeting the relief at Native American households. Another in Oklahoma is sending the money out first to those over the age of 62.

"There's a lot of flexibility in how states can operate these programs," Aurand said.

How do I apply?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a state-by-state list of the 364 programs giving out money to struggling renters.

How much could I get?

You could receive up to 18 months of assistance, including a mix of payments for back and future rent.

If you've already received rental funds but continue to be behind, you can typically apply again as long as you're requesting relief for a different period of time.

The money typically goes to your landlord.

I'm having problems getting assistance. Why?

To begin, you're not alone.

Housing advocates point to a number of problems with the rollout of the assistance, particularly around the arduousness of some of the applications.

One local program's application was 45 pages, Aurand said. Another required renters to document their income for the last six months.

Meanwhile, the demand was so high in Alaska, that its state fund is already putting people on waitlists. And close to 20 local programs across the country have run out of money and been forced to close.

If you're unable to meet a documentation requirement for one program's application or are denied from a certain fund, look for other rental assistance resources in your area, experts say.

It may also be worth reaching out to the organization and explaining why you can't come up with a certain form. The most recent guidance from the Treasury Department encourages programs to take people at their word.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a case worker could work with the tenant," Aurand said.

Yet another issue is that some landlords are refusing to accept the money from the programs because they don't want to agree to its terms, which can include a ban on evicting that tenant or raising their rent for a window of time.

Running into that problem?

Experts recommend that you ask the program if you can receive the funds directly. Some programs are now required to offer that option if they can't get your landlord's cooperation, Aurand said.

I'm worried about eviction. What should I do?

Beyond applying for rental assistance as soon as possible, familiarize yourself with your rights. Those will vary by state.

Despite recent legal challenges to the national eviction ban, the law remains in place for now and potentially until the end of June as long as it isn't struck down before. To get that protection, you'll need to attest on a declaration form that you meet a few requirements, such as that you earned less than $99,000 in 2020 or 2021.

Most states have lifted their eviction bans by now, but some are still in place. (Those policies have nothing to do with the federal moratorium.)

Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University, has put together a spreadsheet of those local policies. New York, for example, has extended its eviction moratorium until September.

If your landlord has moved to evict you, try to get a lawyer.

You can find low-cost or free legal help with an eviction in your state at At, you can search for other community resources for people at risk of eviction.

One study in New Orleans found that more than 65% of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, compared with just 15% of those who did have a lawyer with them at their hearing.

Last month, Washington became the first state to guarantee tenants facing eviction the right to counsel.

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us