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For Housing Assistance to Work, Communication Must Improve

In the year or so since the coronavirus pandemic crippled the U.S. economy and sent unemployment rates through the roof, the federal government and government-controlled agencies have put provisions in place for struggling homeowners as well as renters and their property owners. From the national eviction moratorium to emergency rental assistance, these programs are working to keep people housed, however, according to researchers, the effectiveness of these tools depends on understanding and communication.

"For these protections to work, landlords and tenants must take certain steps," note Urban Institute research associates Laurie Goodman and Jung Hyun Choi.

For example, the rental assistance program passed in December requires landlords, on behalf of a tenant, or tenants themselves to apply for assistance. The eviction moratorium requires both the landlord and the tenant to know the moratorium is in place.

"We fear that these policies will not be as effective as they could be because too few mom-and-pop landlords and their tenants are aware of them," Goodman and Choi wrote.

A co-study by Urban Institute and Avail, a platform that periodically surveys its landlords and tenants, validated that concern. The results show that out of the 1,200 landlords and 2,500 tenants who responded, most landlords and tenants that Avail serves—who own or live in one-to-four-unit rental properties—were unaware of rental assistance, and most tenants do not know about the eviction moratorium extension.

While landlords reported a higher level of awareness than tenants, but even for those property owners, the report showed, "awareness was modest."

Almost half (48%) of landlords knew about government-sponsored rental assistance, while 31% of tenants understood that assistance is available.

Higher earning tenants ($100,000 a year) had somewhat higher awareness about programs—38%—than those with lower incomes.

Responses indicated that information is not reaching the tenants who are in most need, the researchers said.

"Landlords who have experienced rental income losses were more likely to know about the assistance, but tenants with challenges paying rent were less likely to know about the assistance."

Even among those who know about and who have sought assistance, misgivings abound, the study showed.

"Landlords and tenants who applied expressed that finding assistance and uncertainty about whether they would receive assistance were major barriers. The lack of awareness of the program plus the lack of applications on the part of eligible landlords and tenants indicates adequate funding may not reach those in need.

As for the recently extended nationwide foreclosure and eviction moratorium, most landlords know about it, while fewer than half of renters surveyed were informed.

The researchers call some of their findings— low overall awareness and low application rates even among those who see themselves as eligible, for example—"disturbing."

"It is especially concerning that the tenants most in need are less aware of both rental assistance and the eviction moratorium extension, which increases their possibility of eviction without having an opportunity to exercise their rights. More outreach is critical to ensure that both renters and landlords are aware of their options."

Read the full study at urban.org.

About Author: Christina Hughes Babb

Christina Hughes Babb is a reporter for DS News and MReport. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, she has been a reporter, editor, and publisher in the Dallas area for more than 15 years. During her 10 years at Advocate Media and Dallas Magazine, she published thousands of articles covering local politics, real estate, development, crime, the arts, entertainment, and human interest, among other topics. She has won two national Mayborn School of Journalism Ten Spurs awards for nonfiction, and has penned pieces for Texas Monthly, Salon.com, Dallas Observer, Edible, and the Dallas Morning News, among others. Contact Christina at christina.hughesbabb@thefivestar.com.

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