116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When the pandemic hit, Angela Bears was afraid she would bring the virus home to her 3-year-old son, who was in treatment for kidney cancer.
She fell behind on rent for her Kansas City, Mo., home after she decided it was safer to stop going to her warehouse job. Bears said she applied for rental assistance multiple times this spring, but never heard back.
She is now $5,000 behind on her rent and fearing eviction. She is asking for donations online to stay in her home.
"I've got boxes. I've started packing," she said. "The only thing at this point that matters to me is that my son doesn't get sick."
Bears is one of thousands of Americans who have been shortchanged by a yawning disconnect between two policies lawmakers passed in response to the pandemic. One, a federal ban on some evictions, is set to expire Saturday. Another, a $46.5 billion emergency fund aimed at getting rent to tenants at risk of eviction, has been painfully slow to get off the ground, with some states and counties unable to spend even a dollar of the money they were provided months ago.
The expiration of the federal moratorium, following a failed last-ditch effort Friday by congressional Democrats to extend it, will leave renters with few pandemic-era protections as courts begin processing steep backlogs of eviction cases. Roughly 3.6 million people in the United States as of July 5 said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some advocates say the Emergency Rental Assistance Program was flawed from the get-go because it relies on state and local governments to create and run their own programs. While some states quickly set up programs, others struggled to find people in need or else received so many applications that the onslaught overwhelmed them.
Six months after the aid program was approved by President Donald Trump in December, just 12 percent of the first $25 billion in funds had reached people in need due to loss of income from the pandemic, according to the Treasury Department. More than three months after President Joe Biden signed a March relief package with another $21.5 billion, even less of that has been spent.
Unlike other pandemic aid like stimulus checks or child tax credits, Congress designed the program as a partnership between the federal, state and local governments.
Iowa set up a rent and utility assistance program with $195 million in federal money. The aid covers up to 12 months of late rent and utility bills for renters who make up to 80 percent of their area's median income. Iowans also have to show that they either lost their job or experienced another significant financial blow caused by the pandemic.
But so far, the state estimates that $7.6 million in rent and utility assistance — only about 4 percent — has been distributed to 2,753 families statewide, although that doesn’t include local programs. Last year, Iowa distributed $31.3 million to roughly 14,000 renters through a different rental assistance program.
Iowa Finance Authority spokeswoman Ashley Jared said the state hasn't decided yet whether to apply for a second round of federal rental assistance money that is available.
Despite the aid, evictions are expected to jump in the state.
“We would expect to see a fairly significant increase in the next couple weeks," said Anne Bacon, of the IMPACT Community Action Partnership group, which is overseeing Des Moines area programs. "Right now we are just trying to keep people from becoming homeless."
The CDC moratorium prevented many but not all evictions in Iowa. Alex Kornya, general counsel at Iowa Legal Aid, said some landlords have been able to evict people whose leases had expired by arguing that they were being evicted because of that, not because of late payments. Still, the number of eviction lawsuits statewide fell from roughly 18,000 in 2019 to 12,364 last year because of the moratoriums, Kornya said. So far this year, 7,318 eviction cases have been filed in Iowa courts.
Iowa has a tight rental market and a shortage of affordable housing. The state reported a 4.9 percent vacancy rate last year, which was below the national average of 7 percent. The vacancy rates in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City markets are even lower.
"We hope it's not as bad as we think it might be," Kornya said. "But right now, there are a lot of extremely concerning signs." Recent census data showed 30,115 adults in Iowa feared they could be evicted within two months.
Nationwide, just 36 out of more than 400 states, counties and cities reporting data to the Treasury Department were able to spend half of the rental aid money allotted them by the end of June. Another 49 hadn't spent any funds at all.
Under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas is one area that has found success, by Thursday having put $610 million in the hands of renters — more than half its first round of funding.
Advocates and legal aid groups, however, say the program by and large has failed tenants who reasonably expected aid to arrive in time. "What I am seeing now is an anxiety that I haven't seen in 20 years of practice, and it continues to grow and compound," said Jack Newton, director of public services at the nonprofit Bronx Legal Services in New York City.
White House and Treasury officials say they are continuing to press states and localities to improve their programs, while giving them the flexibility to design them as they choose. Indeed, the pace of spending has increased dramatically, with $1.5 billion going to households in the month of June, more than all previous months combined.
Hours before the eviction ban was to expire, Biden called on state and local governments to "take all possible steps" to disburse the funds.
"Every state and local government must get these funds out to ensure we prevent every eviction we can," he said.
The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed.