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Centering Equity and Efficiency in Coronavirus Housing Responses

An aerial photo of Washington, Seattle.While many jurisdictions have deployed rental assistance programs to help keep people housed, some such as King County, Washington have centered equity and efficiency in their program design, implementation, and evaluation. Credit: Cascade Creatives/shutterstock.com

As the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, forcing business closures and spiking unemployment, local government leaders worried that the broad loss of income among low-wage renters would result in mass evictions and produce a surge of homelessness. Faced with these rapidly increasing housing needs and declining revenues, localities desperately needed federal support, which came, initially, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Many jurisdictions deployed emergency assistance programs utilizing various sources of federal and state funding to help keep people housed, but some, such as King County, Washington, home to the city of Seattle, have integrated equity and efficiency into their program design, implementation, and evaluation. King County responded to the potential eviction crisis quickly by merging federal, state, and local funding to target the limited aid available to those most affected. After the first year of operating its Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance Program (EPRAP), King County is applying lessons learned from the experience to the soon-to-launch 2021 iteration of the program, seeking to expand access and increase program efficiency and efficacy.

Addressing Relief to the Hardest Hit

In August 2020, King County launched EPRAP to help maintain housing for people affected by economic consequences of the pandemic by paying unpaid back rent. The $41.4 million effort pooled $9.8 million from the King County COVID Relief Fund and $28.7 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s disbursement of federal CARES Act funds. In addition to those pandemic-specific funding sources, the county utilized other already-existing funding sources to augment EPRAP including $1.7 million in community development block grants; and $1.2 million from the King County Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy. Administered by the county’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), the program targets those directly impacted by the pandemic and serves households earning at or below 50 percent of area median income over the previous 60 days that have at least one month of unpaid or partially unpaid rent since March 2020.

Many program features were designed to ensure that emergency funds, which fall short of total need, are equitably distributed, prioritizing those most at risk, with low barriers to entry, and with significant outreach efforts. The program’s four major components acknowledge the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on historically marginalized communities. The first component, the large residential property fund, provided $17.9 million to properties funded with low-income housing tax credits and properties located in the ZIP Codes with the highest unemployment and COVID-19 infection rates. The second component is the individual household and small landlord fund, which recognizes that smaller landlords are more likely to be people of color. Unlike the large landlord fund, which was targeted to certain hardest-hit ZIP Codes, small landlords and individual tenants are eligible countywide. To help equitably distribute the $10 million in this fund, the county partnered with community-based organizations to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate assistance with the application process. Program participants are selected through a lottery, minimizing advantages to applicants based on computer access or literacy, and applicants are permitted to self-certify their income to help prevent people with inconsistent or informal employment from being denied needed assistance and eliminate document gathering as a potential barrier to assistance delivery.

The third component, a $2 million manufactured home park fund, targets funding to residents of manufactured homes in King County, 70 percent of whom are Latinx. Any owner of a manufactured housing park can participate and participating owners are paid in bulk for each eligible tenant who has fallen behind in rent. The final component of EPRAP is a $5 million allocation for eviction prevention and other rental assistance that was provided through the United Way of King County.

To help ensure that the program meets its equity goals, King County published program and fund summary data — including demographic data on program participants — on an up-to-date dashboard. As of December 2020, when the program ended, the county had received applications representing 25,000 households and issued $37.6 million in rental assistance to more than 9,000 households (initially, program architects estimated that 60,000 households would be eligible throughout the county, sixfold the number that could be supported). The average household received 3 months of assistance, and nearly one-fifth of households received the maximum 6 months of assistance. The large landlord fund, representing 64 percent of households served, was a particularly efficient mechanism for distributing funds, leveraging the institutional expertise of large landlords to connect tenants with less knowledge or technological literacy to the program. To participate, landlords applied to the program on the basis of unpaid rent alone while nonprofit partners undertook the work of verifying tenant eligibility, encouraging participation by partitioning legwork to align with organizational competencies. The program successfully met its goal of targeting aid to historically marginalized communities, distributing 76 percent of its funds to households of color. Participating landlords agreed to waive over $3.1 million in rent past due. Over time, the program substantially improved the time between when a provider referred a household for aid and when payment was disbursed, going from nearly 50 days in September 2020 to slightly more than 10 by the end of the year.

Applying Lessons Learned

In partnership with the University of Notre Dame, King County DCHS surveyed tenants in February 2021 to obtain feedback on EPRAP, and the department is applying the lessons learned to the next iteration of the program. Relaunching in April 2021, the program will include funding from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 and will permit rental assistance on future rent. The program will include a central system of intake and payments that will leverage partnerships to maximize program capacity, prevent backlogs, and ensure speedy delivery of assistance, as some prospective participants in early days of the 2020 program resorted to payday loans to cover back rent while applications were being processed. The program also expands eligibility for small landlords and for large residential landlord properties in additional ZIP Codes with high rates of COVID-19 infection, and it will translate application materials into additional languages. In response to feedback from applicants, the 2021 iteration of the program will streamline the application process and increase communication with applicants throughout. Other provisions will ensure that the program serves tenants aged 18 to 25 years of age as well as the American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Asian-American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities.

Though created in the exigency of a new pandemic virus, EPRAP presents a valuable case study in mobilizing multiple funding streams toward a common goal of helping people remain in housing despite destabilizing circumstances. As King County continues and expands EPRAP in 2021, centering equity and efficiency in program design and evaluation has led to meaningful adjustments to ensure that program objectives are better met and point to post-pandemic future for effective and fast interventions to avert the worst outcomes of housing instability. Finally, King County will draw on funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to support its efforts to promote housing stability.