(NerdWallet) — Congress has appropriated more than $46 billion in emergency assistance to help cover back rent and utilities owed by struggling renters. But getting a share of that money isn’t automatic or guaranteed.
Not everyone who’s behind on their rent qualifies for help. In addition, some states and cities require more paperwork than others, which can make accessing the funds more difficult. Also, landlords and tenants typically must work together to apply for the aid, and some landlords are refusing to help.
For now, most renters are protected by various eviction bans — at national, state and sometimes local levels — but someday those will end. In the meantime, owing your landlord can lead to credit damage, collections calls and lawsuits. If you’re behind on your rent, you’d be smart to start exploring your options for dealing with this debt.
Emergency assistance for low-income renters
Congress approved $25 billion in renters’ assistance in December, followed by an additional $21.5 billion in March. The money is being distributed to state and local governments. Many programs have just begun to process applications while others are still getting set up.
“That money is now getting out to tenants and landlords, but slowly,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing.
To qualify, at least one member of the household must be eligible for unemployment or have lost income or incurred expenses related to the pandemic. A tenant must have an income that is 80% or below the area’s median income, but program administrators are required to give a preference to applicants with incomes that are 50% or below. The money can be used to pay rent or utilities that are already owed or to assist with future rent, Yentel says.
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Each state and local program has its own criteria for applicants. You may need to fill out a simple form — or you may have to come up with copies of everything from your W-2s to a utility bill from last spring.
“Some have very simple application processes that allow for self-certification for almost all eligibility requirements,” Yentel says. “Others require really burdensome documentation that can be very hard for some of the lowest-income and most marginalized people to produce.”
Some programs also have requirements for landlords, such as mandating that they forgive a portion of the unpaid rent or forgo rent increases for a certain period, Yentel says. Not all landlords are willing to agree to that. The programs are allowed to pay tenants directly in those cases, Yentel says, but some simply move on to the next applicant on the list.
The housing coalition maintains a list of programs on its site, or you can search for your state or city and the words “emergency rental assistance.” You also could contact a HUD-approved housing counselor by calling 877-542-9723 to learn about your available options.
Eviction bans don’t protect you from financial fallout
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended its ban on most rental evictions until June 30, and some areas have additional protections (self-help legal site Nolo has a list). These may keep a roof over your head for now, but they typically don’t prevent your landlord from charging you late fees or turning your account over to a collection agency, which can damage your credit. Plus, your landlord likely will start eviction proceedings as soon as the moratorium expires. An eviction — or even the legal filing that starts the process, in some states — can effectively prevent you from renting decent housing for years.
“A lot of landlords will say, ‘Forget about it. I don’t want to deal with that,’” says Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, a nonprofit advocate for housing rights for the poor.
To avoid that, consider reaching out to your landlord to discuss your options. You may be able to work out a repayment plan — if you’re back at work, for example, or can tap other resources such as tax refunds, stimulus checks, savings, or a loan from friends or family. (Get the agreement in writing, to protect yourself in case the landlord files eviction proceedings anyway.) If you can’t afford the place where you’re living, ask if the landlord would be willing to let you end your lease early to avoid incurring more debt.
If all else fails, you likely still have an option to deal with rent debt: bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy can temporarily stave off eviction to allow you more time to negotiate a repayment agreement. In most cases, you would need to file before your landlord starts eviction proceedings. If you can’t come to an agreement, then bankruptcy can legally erase the debt.
Contact a bankruptcy lawyer for more information; the first consultation is often free.