More Than 5 Million Households Still Behind on Rent — What to Do If Yours Is Among Them

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  • As of February, renters in the U.S. continued to owe nearly $11 billion in debt.
  • The average arrears is more than $2,000.
  • Here are some of your options if you're in the red.

With roughly two more months before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ends the three-year Covid public health emergency, more than 5 million of the nation's households remain behind on their rent.

All together, tenants continued to owe nearly $11 billion in rental debt during the first two weeks of February, according to data by the National Equity Atlas. On average, renters who are behind owe $2,094.

Fortunately, the public health crisis led to the creation of a number of new protections for struggling renters, some of which remain in place.

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"In some cities, there might be rental assistance or free legal aid available, as well as community organizations and tenant unions that could help them understand their rights and possible solutions," said Jacob Haas, research specialist at the Eviction Lab.

Here are some of your options if you're in the red.

Consider your options for rent aid

Most rental assistance programs that opened during the pandemic are now closed, but some are still accepting applications.

On the National Low Income Housing Coalition's website, you can find a state-by-state guide of relief options and their status.

Renters should keep track of the rental assistance opportunities available to them and apply quickly when they see one open, advocates say. The money tends to run out fast.

On Tuesday, the Texas Rent Relief Program began accepting applications for aid, but it's already scheduled to stop doing so Thursday. A notice on its website reads, "Within the first 24 hours of re-opening, requests for assistance far exceeded available funding."

Assess your financial resources

It's not a strategy experts recommend, but some tenants are using their credit cards to cover their rent. Few landlords or property managers accept plastic, so you'd have to find a third-party processor, such as Plastiq or PayPal.

This option should only be used in dire situations, said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

"The biggest potential issue is carrying a balance and paying interest on your rent," Rossman said. "This can make an already sizable expense much more substantial."

Instead, he recommends tenants ask their landlord for an extension or payment plan. Other ways to come up with rent can include borrowing from family members and friends, or from your retirement plan, Rossman said — although withdrawing from your nest egg comes with its own consequences.

Familiarize yourself with tenant rights

It's worth researching and familiarizing yourself with any rights you as a tenant may have, experts say. Many of those rights expanded during the pandemic.

In certain cities, for example, landlords are now limited in how much they can raise your rent. If you're facing eviction because of an increase that was illegal, it's worth knowing: You may be able to bring this up in housing court, or with your landlord.

Protesters n Minneapolis rallied to stop housing evictions during the pandemic.
Universalimagesgroup | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
Protesters n Minneapolis rallied to stop housing evictions during the pandemic.

In some places, you're entitled to a set amount of notice with an eviction, such as at least 90 days in specific cases in Portland, Maine. During the school year, educators and families with school-age children recently got new eviction protections in Oakland, California.

Meanwhile, if your landlord has raised your rent above a certain amount, you could be eligible in a few cities, including Seattle and Portland, Oregon, to get some of your moving costs covered.

Work with a lawyer

If your landlord has moved to evict you, housing advocates recommend that you try to get a lawyer as soon as possible.

One study in New Orleans found that more than 65% of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, compared with just 15% of those who had a lawyer with them at their hearing.

You can find low-cost or free legal help with an eviction in your state at Lawhelp.org.

In a growing number of cities and states, including Washington, Maryland and Connecticut, tenants facing eviction now have a right to free counsel.

You can find a longer list of those places at civilrighttocounsel.org.

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