The December 2020 COVID-19 relief package established the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance program (ERA) administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. ERA is designed to provide financial support to low-income tenants who have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 due to loss of income or reduced income. ERA dollars can go towards rental payments, rental arrears, utility payments, and utility arrears. The American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March 2021, provides an additional $21.55 billion for ERA.
Since the initial $25 billion ERA funding allocation (known as ERA1) to states, a little over $7.7 billion has been distributed or approved to assist households according to available data from the end of August. The amount approved and distributed varies widely by state, ranging from less than 3% to well above 50%. The state of Texas has distributed over 60% – among the highest across all states. The City of Dallas has distributed the majority of its allocated ERA dollars, well above the average across local municipalities in Texas.
Desiree Sanabria is Director of Workforce and Financial Empowerment at CitySquare, one of the nonprofit organizations in Dallas responsible for ERA distribution. CitySquare incubated Purpose Built Communities Network Member Forest Forward, which is focused on community revitalization in South Dallas. Below, Sanabria shares some key factors that contribute to getting urgently needed assistance out the door to renters:
- Ongoing communication: Early on, United Way established the Dallas Rental Assistance Collaborative to distribute rental relief through a dozen of the city’s major nonprofit agencies, including CitySquare. Members of the collaborative meet weekly to work through challenges. For example, collaborative members discussed how the amount of required paperwork was burdensome for tenants and created processing delays. Over time, the City of Dallas adopted more flexible requirements, based on updated federal guidance, such as allowing self-certification if applicants cannot provide proof of income and other eligibility criteria.
- Nonprofit coordination: Individual nonprofits work together more efficiently thanks to the collaborative. For example, if one nonprofit runs out of dedicated ERA funds, applicants can be shifted to another agency to receive payment without restarting the application process. United Way plans to further streamline efforts by developing a sole application platform for all agencies.
- Power of partnerships: CitySquare has had a steady stream of ERA applicants – and an ongoing waitlist – and attributes this largely to the power of word of mouth and strong relationships. Many property managers and landlords in Dallas have been very helpful in communicating information to tenants, and also to property managers and owners of sister complexes.
- Leveraging existing organizational infrastructure and developing new capacities: CitySquare’s existing legal department stations trained “navigators” at the courthouse who help renters showing up for eviction hearings apply for ERA funding on the spot, with the goal of preventing the eviction. Also, since ERA processing began, CitySquare has hired five coaches plus a project manager dedicated to working with tenants and processing applications. Having one-on-one touchpoints with a coach is extremely helpful, especially for Spanish-speaking tenants and those with difficulty using the technology needed to submit necessary documents.
According to this U.S. Treasury press release, “when the ERA launched earlier this year, there was little state and local infrastructure to deliver emergency rental assistance — most rental assistance grantees needed to start programs virtually from scratch.” From the application itself, to the waitlist, to necessary documents, to assigning coaches, to understanding grant requirements, this is a complex system to build out in a short amount of time. Above all, strong partnerships, constant communication, and establishing/improving upon a clear process have been and will continue to remain critical to ensure hundreds of thousands of individuals and families can remain in their homes and communities in Dallas and across the country.