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Saturday, May 18, 2024

The ‘Broadband Gap’ Is Now a Housing Problem

A national moratorium on evictions expired in late August, after the US Supreme Court blocked a Biden administration bid to extend it. Many feared a drastic upswing in evictions, but instead filings rose less than 9 percent from August to September, according to the Eviction Lab, a research initiative at Princeton University tracking eviction filings across six states and 31 cities.

State and federal rental assistance programs helped prevent a large number of evictions, experts say, but many people still struggle to access help. Housing assistance programs shifted online during the pandemic, leaving behind many without broadband access. End-of-year deadlines loom for renters who need to claim housing relief before states, many with millions in undistributed funds, lose access to them. Meanwhile, housing advocates say a “tangled web” of difficult-to-navigate programs keeps many from getting help.

Kathryn Howell, codirector of the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the sudden shift to an online system hurt people without speedy internet access. As she explains, rental assistance programs have long involved a series of in-person interviews, beginning with an eviction notice and continuing as the person works with state agencies, nonprofits, the property owner, and others.

In rural southwest Virginia, where broadband is sketchy, “there's real trouble making connections for tenants and for landlords,” she says. “I think that a lot of folks haven't quite been able to switch their heads around to this next model.”

Covid-era rent relief programs require information from state agencies, the renter, and the building owner, with both renters and landlords complaining it’s been difficult to navigate. Howell says that while rent relief was essential to keeping renters in their homes, the surprisingly low eviction numbers mask disparities and many states have disbursed little of their available funds. The ​​National Low Income Housing Coalition, a DC-based nonprofit, tracks each state’s rent relief spending. Virginia has spent roughly 60 percent of its funds, while Kentucky has spent less than 30 percent and Mississippi only 10 percent.

“You have some landlords who aren't particularly savvy or particularly motivated,” Howell says, “because they've been able to evict without too much trouble for so long, and so [from their perspective] why is now any different for them, right?”

Advocates are also concerned that some landlords are turning to “delinquency management platforms” to track renters who’ve fallen behind on their payments, regardless of whether they’ve applied for assistance.

As a result, some communities are in dire straits, while others have seen eviction levels drop below pre-pandemic averages. In Arkansas, for example, 25 percent of renters are behind on rent, while the state has distributed only 5 percent of its relief funds, according to an analysis by Axios. In Stanislaus County, near San Francisco, only 5 percent of renters who applied for housing assistance were approved, with many denied because of errors filling out the application.

Even for those with access, navigating the many assistance programs, housing authorities, and applications isn’t easy. Ehren Dohler, who researches housing insecurity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, has tried to track what he’s called the “tangled web” of housing assistance programs. As he explains, such assistance has traditionally gone through local housing authorities, but some metropolitan areas have dozens. Boston, for example, has 94. As Dohler explains, they don't usually share information with each other, meaning applicants must endure long waits and risk starting over should they seek help from one and then have to move to another. Efforts to simplify and standardize the process have stalled.

“You’d have to spend a really long time trying to get every little housing program to agree that not only will they use your system, they will use your system exclusively, because if they’re taking referrals from three other systems, you can't guarantee that you're up to date,” he says.


States that had already begun streamlining application processes distributed more of the relief money, including Virginia, where Howell lives. In 2018, Virginia began overhauling tenant protections after Princeton’s Eviction Lab listed five of its cities among the top 10 in the nation for evictions. Howell credits the state with staffing an eviction prevention section within its Department of Housing and Community Development, which worked with local nonprofits and philanthropists and offered legal aid for tenants facing eviction. In August, the state’s governor required landlords to file for rent assistance before evicting tenants.

“Nobody wants to be called out like that,” Howell says, “But at the same time, it did mean that they were mobilizing and getting a lot done when Covid hit.”

It’s important to remember what precarious positions people were in even before the lockdowns and layoffs. Around half of all renters in the US were “cost burdened” in 2019, meaning they were spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Black and Hispanic households were the most likely to be severely cost burdened. A report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimated as many as 4.8 million Black and Hispanic households were spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s report tracking housing affordability found only 62 affordable units per 100 very low-income renters.

The assistance programs have helped stave off evictions, but Dohler says the pandemic has put pressure on renters in ways that aren’t reflected in eviction numbers. Some tenants double up, sharing small spaces, which increases risk of Covid-19 transmission. Some are living in inadequate housing, sleeping in motels where they can pay daily or weekly, instead of the lump sums required when landlords ask for security deposit plus several months' rent upfront. Living in motels can cost renters more in the long run, Dohler says, but at least it keeps them from losing shelter.

As many renters struggle, tenant advocates are turning to platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to build campaigns and raise awareness.

AJ Holmes is a member of the Houston Tenants Union, which organizes tenants in southwestern Houston. Since the pandemic, social media has been instrumental in how Holmes and other members have organized, using the platforms to spread awareness of fundraising campaigns, educate renters on how to apply for assistance, and shine a light on landlords' misdeeds. Maintaining an online presence is good for recruitment and even alerts some rental property owners to issues.

To tenants, the group tries to show “this is what people got out of our past campaigns,” Holmes says. At the same time, she says, landlords may “look us up and see all the other videos in the website [and] sometimes they're like, ‘Okay, maybe this isn't worth it.’”

In February, winter storms caused power outages throughout Texas. HTU organized a rent strike for tenants who still lacked running water in March. Video of the strike received 11,000 views and, Holmes says, drew media attention that showed tenants the power of rent strikes and also forced a response from landlords after weeks of silence. Concerned about public image, landlords timed the release of donated water to renters to coincide with a visit from reporters. After weeks of negotiation, building managers eventually settled with tenants and restored water. The most important part of the campaign, Holmes says, has been listening to people who need help.

“It’s really about just getting people to be aware of their rights and what basic things are available to them to help them get through the bureaucratic mess that they're stuck in,” Holmes says.

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