An analysis finds that the $25B allocated to pay back rent isn’t enough, and the federal distribution plan favors smaller states on an amount-per-capita basis.

NEW YORK – Starr Lewis’ aunt and great-uncle both died from COVID-19 at the New Orleans hospital where she worked as a cook. Lewis, 27, kept going to work as others in the kitchen, too, fell prey to the coronavirus. Soon, the hospital started cutting her hours. By April, she was out of a job. Bills piled on. She fell behind on rent and utilities.

Even many months later, she still hasn’t been able to catch up.

“I’m a person that used to pay her rent on time,” said Lewis, who said she scours the internet all night looking for jobs. “It’s been hard on me because I can’t find help.”

Like Lewis, nearly 40 million Americans behind on rent and threatened with eviction have been waiting on federal aid for nearly a year. Many believed help was on the way Dec. 21 after Congress passed $25 billion in rental assistance that was supposed to pay rental arrears – in some cases covering up to 12 months of back rent.

But the Emergency Assistance Rental Program won’t benefit all Americans equally, according to a USA TODAY analysis. The government payments will overwhelmingly benefit Americans living in less populated states even though most Americans and most Americans affected by the pandemic and the recession live in the most populated states.

Part of the problem is there wasn’t enough rental assistance to go around in the first place. Then the government decided to calculate aid dollars for medium and large states according to the total population, while giving less populated states a set amount. That means renters living in states like New York, California and Massachusetts – home to some of the most expensive cities in the country – will come up short. Renters in less populated states like Vermont and Wyoming will get more money.

A USA TODAY analysis of rental allocation to all 50 states found Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming will receive substantially more money per eligible renter than other states. Vermont and Wyoming each received more than $2,600 per renter compared with the national average of $837. At $3.8 billion, heavily populated states New York and California got the highest amount of total aid overall but the least in per-renter funding: $378.76 and $443.56 respectively.

Even with the most optimistic calculations, these amounts won’t cover enormous gaps in arrears for renters, a majority of whom are ages 40 to 54 and live in the Northeast, the South or California, according to a report by Moody’s Analytics, a New York-based financial research firm: 61% of renters in California and 55% of renters in New York are people of color, according to U.S. census data.

“The typical delinquent renter will be almost four months and $5,600 behind on their monthly rent and utilities, with another $50 per month of late-payment penalties,” wrote chief economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.

In all, Americans need $57 billion to pay off their back rent, about $32 billion short of the aid sent to states. The package Congress passed, according to Moody’s analysis, will be able to help only about 3.5 million renters pay back rent and utilities.

“A more precise formula would better target resources to communities with the greatest needs if it were based on the number of cost-burdened and low-income renters,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to ending America’s affordable-housing crisis.

Yaeko Scott, 48, a New Orleans hotel housekeeper, was laid off in October and owes $4,100 in rent and utilities. Louisiana received $308 million to bail out renters like Scott. That’s about $514 per renter.

“It’s too big of a gap,” Scott said. “My landlord will take the $500, but they are still going to want me to move out.”

Why the disparity?

Part of the disparity in state allocations occurred because Congress decided to set a minimum of $200 million to make sure less populated states would have enough money. But because the money wasn’t divided evenly, these states got more than their fair share.

Analysts and advocates call the practice the “small-state minimum” or “small-state bias.”

“The small-state minimum isn’t really based on need,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “It’s a standard practice on virtually every formula for the distribution of money I have ever seen at the federal government level.”

“A formula not dialed in specifically to help families that owe back rent will be disastrous,” said Michael Anderson, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project at Community Change, a national civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

To receive federal rental assistance, renters need to qualify for unemployment or have had their income reduced because of COVID-19. They also need to have a household income at or below 80% of the area median income. Households that fall below 50% of the area median income should be at the front of the line, according to Treasury Department guidelines.

In California, renters must earn less than $60,188 to qualify versus $51,239 in Wyoming, according to USA TODAY’s calculations based on state median incomes reported by the Census Bureau.

The problem is that cost of living varies dramatically, as do homeownership rates.

The median gross rent in Wyoming is $855 compared to $1,550 in California. The national median rent is $1,062.

More than 70% of Wyoming residents are homeowners, compared with 54% of Californians. The national homeownership average is 64%. But for many people of color, homeownership rates lag behind the national average by at least 20 percentage points. Black Americans have a homeownership rate of 41% compared with 45% for Latino Americans and 53% for Asian Americans.

The Treasury Department did not respond to USA TODAY’s multiple requests for comment.

Neither the office of Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio nor Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania returned USA TODAY’s questions about why allocations failed to factor in need as opposed to population size. Both senators are in leadership positions on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and voted in favor of the stimulus. Brown pushed for rental assistance in the stimulus package in December.

“Finally families, small businesses, and communities will get much-needed help,” Brown said in a statement released shortly after Congress agreed to include the $25 billion in rental assistance last year. “This long-overdue compromise provides urgent relief to Americans suffering as a result of this health and economic crisis.”

Failure from both sides

COVID-19 and the economic downturn it has unleashed has disproportionately hit low-income Americans, especially those of color, who tend to live in large, densely populated urban centers and have died at record rates.

Less populated states tend to have a white majority population.

Of the top 10 states receiving the most rental assistance per renter household, more than half have a white population of more than 80%, the USA TODAY analysis found.

And the top 10 states with the largest white populations in the country – Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Idaho, Wyoming, Iowa, Utah, Montana and Nebraska – are among the 20 states receiving the most rental assistance per renter.

Peter Hepburn, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and research fellow at the Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction filings nationwide, said there will be enough money in less populated states to make many people whole, but the bias in allocation inherently forces states with higher renter populations to perpetuate racial inequities.

“Larger states are going to be forced to make hard choices,” said Hepburn. “When you have to choose between winners and losers, it’s always communities of color that suffer.”

“There’s this failure to recognize how serious this is,” said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, a community-led advocacy group out of New Orleans.

“These programs, even when administered by African Americans, even when managed by Democrats, even when designed by progressives, fail to meet the mark,” Morris said.

She added, “They are not breaking down the systemic biases.”

Copyright 2021,, USA TODAY

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