Rethinking Rent Assistance: Systems and the Eviction Moratorium

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By Patrick Graham, Ph.D.

The eviction moratorium may end with only 12 percent of the $25 billion of the rent assistance approved in December spent.  Some lessons could make a difference for millions facing eviction.  State and local governments and partners must change their mental and systemic approaches to eviction prevention.  It will require strategies that centralize the regional administration of funding.  We must promote partnerships between landlords and tenants, deemphasize false narratives of fraud, and focus on equity and issues such as affordable housing to benefit all residents.

As a public and social sector executive with over 20 years of workforce development and eviction prevention experience, I realize that our mental approach to rent assistance is part of the issue.  Systems transformation requires a different way of thinking before addressing organizational relationships, policies, or the distribution of resources.  The following sections outline issues that make effective or ineffective eviction prevention systems.

Landlords vs. Tenants

Too often, landlord associations, tenant rights advocates, courts, and lawyers draw lines in the sand that prevent partnerships between landlords and tenants.  While I advocate for tenant’s rights, I realize that many landlords in the affordable housing space are smaller investment property owners.  It is vital to promote partnerships when negotiating between parties to create win-win situations.  For example, THRIVE Ashville in North Carolina provides training and stipends to landlords and tenants to address affordable housing.  The concept of a partnership has led to a more unified effort around affordable housing issues. 

Mass Fraud – Fact or Fiction

I have led private and public eviction programs in Charlotte, North Carolina, and led the creation of Metro Richmond’s (Virginia) first regional private and public eviction prevention model.  In my experience with eviction prevention funding, audits revealed less than two percent of applicants commit fraud.  However, we base too many of our policies on fraud prevention.  We often exclude or dissuade applicants from applying with cumbersome processes that fail to acknowledge the over 98 percent of applicants that need help in a crisis.  For a long time, public and social sector leaders have known that practitioners are more likely to commit fraud with public dollars than applicants.

Use Data to Include, Not Exclude

When I led the design of the City of Richmond’s first eviction prevention model in 2020, we thought it was the perfect time to create systemic change using data.  Richmond ranked second in the nation for evictions.  The data revealed that it took African Americans an average of 26 weeks to find a job after losing employment before the pandemic.  This was more than any other group.  Victims of domestic violence and others forced to move did not meet the loss of income or increased expenses criteria of the CARES Act.  I petitioned the regional Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office to interpret victims of domestic violence and others as facing health risks for eviction prevention funding.  I used the disparities of African Americans to allow six months of assistance for all residents based on one assessment with another three or six months renewal if conditions did not change.  Because we established policies based on groups facing the most significant disparities, the City of Richmond had the region’s most inclusive rent assistance policy.  It aided over 8,000 households in five months during the pandemic, the largest in the area.

Transform Systems

Perhaps the best thing about Richmond’s regional approach is that it gave residents and landlords easier access to financial assistance.  We developed a process that placed private, public, and faith dollars under one administration.  The region’s rent assistance went from several agencies administering a few million dollars to one agency issuing $25 million. All of its partners had quick access to funding while removing territorialism and competition.  Landlords and residents were directed to a single source that made registering for aid convenient.  As a result, our community also became more in tune with addressing one of the fundamental issues: affordable housing.

Conclusion

To grow eviction prevention systems that benefit residents and landlords, we must change how we think about the people impacted most.  This is true of all systems.  Data often tells a different story than the popular narratives we encounter.  We can create better models that are more efficient if we address mentalities based on unfounded fear, territorialism, and a desire to be inclusive.  As the new Chief Executive Officer of the City of Concord’s (North Carolina) affordable housing initiative, Concord Family Enrichment Association, we will also take the path of systems transformation with our partners to make our community a better place to live, learn, work, and play for all.

About the Author

Patrick Graham, Ph.D., is a public and social sectors leader and equity practitioner with over 20 years of national executive experience. He is the author of several academically published works and policy agendas.  He currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Concord Family Enrichment Association, an organization dedicated to affordable housing and cross-sector collaborations.