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How smart reporters are grappling with the story of rental assistance as cliff looms

How smart reporters are grappling with the story of rental assistance as cliff looms

Picture of Giles Bruce
A constable in Maricopa County, Arizona evicted a tenant in October 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona, despite the CDC moratorium for ren
A constable in Maricopa County, Arizona evicted a tenant in October 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona, despite the CDC moratorium for renters impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As part of its “You Asked, We Answered” series, the Center for Health Journalism has been asking journalists what questions they have about reporting related to the pandemic. This week’s question: States are beginning to roll out billions of dollars in rental assistance from the December stimulus bill. Is the amount sufficient to meet the need? Are middle-income renters being left out?

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Subrina Hudson started covering unemployment in March 2020, when the pandemic caused U.S. jobless rates to rise to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

She eventually turned her focus to evictions, as many of those unemployed people faced the prospect of getting kicked out of their homes. So, recently, she’s been paying close attention to the tens of millions of dollars in rent relief being distributed in Nevada, amid a wave of headlines reporting massive bottlenecks in releasing the federal funds.

But data on how many local renters are at risk of eviction can be difficult to come by. Hudson’s county doesn’t break down whether eviction cases are residential or commercial, and she doesn’t have the time to go through them individually.

“Right now, on its face, it seems like the (rent relief) program is working, and people are getting rental assistance,” she said. “But at the same time, there's this thought that we have this looming eviction crisis, to the point where it seems like there isn't enough rental assistance for the county. Without getting those eviction numbers, it’s really hard to say.”

So her newsroom is partnering with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University to evaluate how many tenants in the Las Vegas area are at risk of being thrown out of their residences. Hudson said the Eviction Lab had been wanting to do this type of analysis for Las Vegas, and her newspaper had the raw data the organization needed through public records requests.

“I definitely don't have the tech skills to create a whole Python-type system,” Hudson said, referring to the data programming language. “We're a large paper, but we don't have the resources of a New York Times or Wall Street Journal to undertake something like this.”

Reporters and newsrooms across the country are likewise keeping a close eye on how local and state governments are spending the roughly $46 billion in emergency rental assistance from the two most recent COVID relief bills. Nearly 9 million Americans are behind on their rent, according to one recent government estimate. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week extended the federal ban on evictions until July 31, adding that it would be the final extension.

Basic questions remain

Among the questions reporters are trying to answer is whether the money is sufficient to meet the need, and if the renter income guidelines — which range from 30% to 80% of the area’s median income depending on where you live — are too strict.

In many areas, however, the funds just recently started going out, as states and municipalities have had to build the programs from scratch.

“Rent relief and emergency rental assistance did not exist prior to the pandemic,” noted Vincent Reina, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher for the Housing Initiative at Penn. “The real test of how effective and efficient these programs are going to be is really going to be seen in the coming months.”

He said there are a lot of reasons it can be difficult to determine the demand for rental assistance, “not the least of which is that we went into this pandemic with a housing affordability crisis.” Many jurisdictions also don’t track evictions or have active property owner registries, he added.

To qualify for the assistance, a household must be at or below 80% of the area median income, according to federal guidelines. But since income varies by geography, many localities have lowered the eligibility figure, to 30% or less in some cases, to reach the poorest tenants first.

“I would say generally what we found is that the fewer restrictions you're putting on programs, the more flexibility that gives you and the more likelihood you're able to get dollars out the door,” Reina said. “That said, in the first rounds of funds, we did find some evidence that jurisdictions that targeted lower-income households often got dollars out the door more effectively.”

For some tenants, the rental assistance is coming too late. One of Reina’s group’s early findings was that many households had foregone medical care during the pandemic to pay rent. In the city and county of Los Angeles, for instance, more than a quarter of rent relief applicants reported recently going without medicine or seeing a doctor because of the cost.

“We know that people who are housing insecure are likelier to catch any number of illnesses or contract any number of diseases,” said René Christian Moya, campaign coordinator for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. “Housing is one of the biggest determinants of our health.”

Moya said that prioritizing the lowest-income households for rental assistance is necessary to ensure there is enough money for the renters most in need, who are often poor and people of color.

Reporters confront information hurdles

To get around data gaps and obstacles, housing reporter Erin Baldassari and her colleagues at KQED have been requesting lockout data, which tracks when police officers evict tenants.

“This happens in only a small fraction of cases, but it's one of the few public documents we have … when an actual eviction has taken place,” she said. “So we are hoping to use that to see whether there is a spike of evictions after the moratorium is lifted.”

For other data on housing in the age of COVID-19, Baldassari utilizes the National Equity Atlas’ Rent Debt Dashboard, which uses U.S. Census data to visualize who in America is behind on rent, as well as the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area Equity Atlas.

“I would say generally what we found is that the fewer restrictions you're putting on programs, the more flexibility that gives you and the more likelihood you're able to get dollars out the door,” Reina said. “That said, in the first rounds of funds, we did find some evidence that jurisdictions that targeted lower-income households often got dollars out the door more effectively.”                            — Vincent Reina, Housing Initiative at Penn

Another place that tracks local programs is the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s emergency rental assistance dashboard.

To locate people being affected by the pandemic housing crisis, Baldassari searches Twitter for certain keywords and adds “I” or “my.”

She recently found a woman in Oakland who lives in a rent-controlled apartment and believes her landlord isn’t participating in the rental relief program in order to evict her and get a tenant who will pay market rate. On the other side, Baldassari also talked to a landlord who is owed $100,000 in back rent payments and anxiously waiting for the moratorium to expire.

“There’s just a lot of fear. There’s a lot of confusion,” Baldassari said.

Money slow to come

Much of Louis Hansen’s reporting for The Mercury News in San Jose lately has been on how little of the rental assistance has been getting to Bay Area landlords and tenants. A big reason seems to be the hasty way in which these programs have been set up.

“One landlord described it as, ‘They’re trying to build the airplane as they’re flying,’” Hansen said. “I get calls from landlords every day, and emails. They can’t believe how bad it’s been.”

He said landlords, for one, want to see more money invested in rent relief and income eligibility guidelines expanded.

While Hansen has been covering housing for about three years, he suggests reporters newer to the beat contact tenant advocacy organizations and local charities to find renters to interview, as well as landlord groups and property associations to reach affected landlords.

“It’s best to look for the personal stories to work into policy stories,” he said. “You want the reader to understand the impact it has on her community. You want the reader to be able to have an appreciation of the emotion behind these policy decisions.”

With another $21.6 billion in rental assistance from March’s American Rescue Act on the way, journalists around the U.S. will be covering this topic for months to come.

“The stories out there, of renters on the edge and landlords on the edge, are ones you can tell in a small town or a big city,” Hansen said. “So any reporter can grab on to this and really tell the story.”

**

Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the "American Recovery Act." It is the "American Rescue Plan."

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