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Congress Approves $25 Billion in Rental Assistance. Here's How to Apply

Twenty/20
  • A new pot of money aims to help people get caught up on their back rent.
  • Here's who qualifies and how to apply.

In the stimulus package signed into law last month, the national ban on evictions was extended through January and a $25 billion pot of money was established for renters struggling amid the health and economic crisis.

That money will help to keep many of the 14 million Americans who are behind on their rent in their homes during the coldest months of the year and while a pandemic rages. Still, housing advocates say more money is needed. By one estimate, after 10 months of record job losses and business shutdowns, rental arrears in the U.S. may be closer to $70 billion.

"While this is a critical start, these provisions will not end the eviction crisis and will not help all renters who desperately need rental assistance to protect their families from harm," said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University.

Now that Democrats are in control of Congress, additional relief measures for renters stand a better chance of materializing. Democrats in May had called for $100 billion in housing assistance and a 12-month eviction moratorium but ultimately scaled back their demands in negotiations with Republicans.

For now, here's what you need to know about accessing the $25 billion fund.

Am I eligible?

To qualify for the assistance, at least one member in your household has to be eligible for unemployment benefits or attest in writing that they've lost income or incurred significant expenses due to the pandemic.

You will also need to demonstrate a risk of homelessness, which may include a past due rent or utility notice.

In addition, your income level for 2020 can't exceed 80% of your area's median income, though states have been directed to prioritize applicants who fall at 50% or lower, as well as those who've been out of work for 90 days or more.

Are the funds available now?

States will have the funds by Jan. 20.

How do I apply?

"Where or how to apply will vary city by city," Benfer said.

Many areas have existing rental assistance funds, and it will be through one of these that you apply for the new aid. In other cases, new programs will be created to disburse the money, Benfer said.

"Renters should contact local housing groups, their representatives or the local 211/311 lines to identify programs and learn how to apply," she added.

Your landlord can also apply for you but must get your signature and provide you with a copy of the application.

How much could I get?

Renters can get help with up to 12 months of back rent and utility bills, and potentially another three months of support if there's still money available. In some cases, you can get funds to cover future rent payments, but only if there's a plan to address any debts first.

The funds are paid directly to your landlord or utility company.

I'm facing eviction. What should I do?

Apply for the funds immediately.

Also, understand your rights. Most renters should be allowed to stay in their homes at least through the end of January thanks to the extension of an order announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September that made evictions for nonpayment illegal. 

To evoke that protection you'll need to attest on a declaration form that you meet a few requirements, such as expecting to earn less than $99,000 in the 2020-2021 calendar year.

"If a tenant cannot pay the rent, they should provide the declaration to their property owner as soon as possible," Benfer said. 

In addition to the CDC ban, some states have issued their own eviction protections. Get informed about any of those protections that apply to you.

Last, if your landlord ignores any of these rules, as some are doing, get a lawyer. You can find low-cost or free legal help with an eviction in your state at Lawhelp.org.

One study in New Orleans found that more than 65% of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, compared with fewer than 15% of those who did have a lawyer in court.

Have you recently applied for rental assistance? If you're willing to discuss you experience for a story, please email me at annie.nova@nbcuni.com

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