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Efforts Increase To Speed Up Rental Assistance Distribution Before Moratorium Ends


The federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of this month. Efforts are being stepped up to distribute $46 billion in emergency rental aid and to head off eviction cases before they end up in court. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: There's nothing simple about trying to avoid eviction. Shelley Miller with the Alexandria Eviction Prevention Partnership in Northern Virginia knows that all too well.

SHELLEY MILLER: It's been a rough go, and nobody was prepared for this on any level, any front.

FESSLER: She and colleagues at local nonprofits have been helping a steady stream of tenants. Some are in more dire need than others. One man arrived at their outreach clinic last week with an envelope stuffed with papers, including a court notice saying he was about to be evicted the following day.

MILLER: I'm going to email the landlord right now to get the lease and the ledger, the updated one.

FESSLER: It turns out the man's application for emergency rental assistance was incomplete. He owes $10,000 in rent. He also hadn't filled out a necessary form declaring his eligibility for the eviction moratorium. Miller emails a copy to the local sheriff to head him off.

MILLER: So we'll let you know if we need anything else, but I'm hoping we'll be good to go.

FESSLER: We've agreed not to use clients' names because of the sensitivity of their cases. Most who come to this clinic lost work during the pandemic, and now with the economy picking up, many can't find child care. This eviction prevention program tries to stay ahead of the curve, but people are very confused. The application forms are complicated and, in Virginia, only available online and in English. Tenants don't trust landlords and vice versa.

DANIEN JOHNSON: We get a lot of people that just can't do anything.

FESSLER: Danien Johnson is with a social service agency called ALIVE!

JOHNSON: They don't want to answer the phone. The landlord may even be calling them to try to help them.

FESSLER: So her group formed this partnership last year to link tenants, landlords and government agencies before events spiral out of control. Sharon Thames is with Morgan Properties, which has 3,000 apartments in Alexandria. Her company's been working closely with the partnership and the city, hosting regular outreach clinics for tenants struggling to pay rent.

SHARON THAMES: It's not in anyone's best interest to have vacant housing. We also want to help the residents.

FESSLER: They also want to collect their rent and avoid court proceedings, which can be messy. But such alliances are rare. The Biden administration, which is worried about a flood of evictions once the moratorium ends, is encouraging communities to adopt similar efforts. At a recent White House summit, officials touted a Philadelphia law that requires landlords to seek rental assistance and mediation with tenants before they go to court. Biden senior adviser Gene Sperling says the country is in a race with time with emergency rental aid only trickling out the door.


GENE SPERLING: We are asking our states and local governments to do everything they can to fill that void in a hurry. Some are ramping up admirably. Some are lagging. But we all have to do better.

FESSLER: Housing advocates say the next few weeks are crucial. A recent Urban Institute survey found most tenants and almost half of landlords don't even know the aid's available, both now and after the moratorium ends.

MILLER: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: Miller says as word spreads, her partnership is starting to see more tenants before they get formal eviction notices. But most cases are still too close for comfort. The day I'm there, a mother of two small children arrives, worried she won't get her rental assistance on time. They show her an app she can use to see the status of her application. When she logs in, she gets a big surprise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: Her aid was just approved.

MILLER: That's why she's super excited (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: More than $7,000 in back rent has been paid, and she has a $2,800 credit for the next two months.

MILLER: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: With tears in her eyes, the woman hugs Miller and a colleague. Finally, she says, she can sleep. But Miller fears such victories will be temporary, especially when the moratorium ends.

MILLER: I think we're going to be in a world of hurt.

FESSLER: She says many people are still living on the edge, and good, affordable housing is harder than ever to find.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.