Elijah Thomas, a court manager with the City of San Antonio Neighborhood and Housing Services, works in an evictions outreach office. San Antonio is one of 12 municipalities that have distributed more than 90% of their federal rental assistance dollars. Photo by Bria Woods for the San Antonio Report

When it comes to distributing the federal money to help people who fell behind on rent during the pandemic, some communities are doing better than others.

Take Louisville-Jefferson County in Kentucky, which is smaller than Memphis and Shelby County. With the help of about 45 staffers, it gave out 100% of its first round of Emergency Rental Assistance as of July 31.

San Antonio, Texas, which is much larger than Memphis and Shelby County, has given out 92% using about 85 staffers.

The two municipalities are two of 12 nationwide that distributed more than 90% of their first round of ERA funds as of July 31, the most recent date for which data is available. If the country as a whole were at 90%, $17 billion more would already be helping low- and moderate-income Americans stay in their homes, avoiding the disruption and credit damage of eviction.

With 30 staffers, Memphis and Shelby County have managed to distribute 52% of their initial ERA dollars, which is far better than the national average of 20%. Leaders of the local program said they accomplished this despite a lack of staffing making it difficult to effectively conduct outreach and limiting the number of applications being processed. 

More on Emergency Rental Assistance

Why are many renters facing eviction if Shelby County has $40M to help?

How can I receive rental assistance?

Tentatively starting on Oct. 4, applications can be completed at home901.org

Shelby County Director of Community Services Dorcas Young Griffin, who is leading the local effort, has said she plans to ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for some of the American Rescue Plan funding the county received. The commission next meets on Monday.

But leaders in Louisville and San Antonio said the size of their staff only partially explains why they’ve been quicker than most American cities. For places hoping to catch up, they recommended a short-term outlook and major outreach efforts by local nonprofits.

“I think the key point of what we’ve done is (getting help from) external people who have a much broader vision of what’s going on in the community,” said Marilyn Harris, Louisville’s director of housing.

Starting early

It’s too late for Shelby County to match one strategy that separated the top performers from the pack — building a rental assistance program before Congress funded the ERA.  

Concerned by the amount of evictions taking place prior to the pandemic, Louisville housing officials and local nonprofits had been working to launch a new eviction diversion program for much of 2019. This work allowed them to quickly help people who fell behind on rent early in the pandemic. By July 2020, the city had two programs up and running to pay past-due rent and prevent evictions, thanks to $21 million of federal CARES Act dollars the city council passed along, according to the Courier Journal

In San Antonio, housing was immediately made a priority when the pandemic struck. In April 2020, worried the hospitality industry collapse would cause a housing crisis, the city council allocated $25 million of mostly local funds to a rental assistance program. 

“We know that there’s people that are falling between the cracks. That’s the bottom line.”

San Antonio City Councilman Roberto Treviño

“We know that there’s people that are falling between the cracks. That’s the bottom line,” City Councilman Roberto Treviño said at the time. “They depend on us to represent them; they depend on us to recognize that many of them, especially in our community, are not getting federal assistance. We can’t let that happen.”

City officials had the program up and running almost immediately.

“We had a leg up on the game,” said Gonzales. “We had experience with our program and made improvements … several months before the (ERA) money came.”

Shelby County is one of 250 counties nationwide where at least 1 in 5 households were behind on rent as of early July, according to one analysis. Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, and Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, had lower rates of families behind on rent.

Shelby County also had a pre-ERA program: an eviction settlement fund. It was launched in June 2020 with $2 million of CARES Act funding and relied on Memphis Area Legal Services to reach settlements with landlords, according to Local 24 (WATN-TV). 

When the ERA was signed into law in December, local leaders hustled to start accepting applications by March 1. This didn’t leave much time to craft a long-term strategy, said Young Griffin in an August MLK50 story

“We reacted very quickly in March. But we didn’t spend time on what structure is going to be most sustainable,” Young Griffin said.

For this article, multiple attempts to reach Young Griffin were unsuccessful.

When asked if the county had plans for additional funding or program improvements, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris focused on the program’s success so far.

“The (Shelby County) program has been nationally profiled and we have been asked by federal partners to deliver advice and tips to other programs around the country,” he said. “Even with all the awards, recognition, and requests to advise other programs, the partners working on this program keep working and innovating.”

Rushing to spend

While neither Shelby County nor any municipality can change what they did in 2020, the Louisville and San Antonio leaders also had advice for how other communities can start catching up.

For instance, they said communities should focus on speed, not longevity.

While Shelby County is planning to fund its program until the second round of ERA expires in 2025, Louisville and San Antonio are focused on dispersing all the funds by the end of 2021.

“This is an emergency rental assistance program, and we are trying to get through this pandemic that we are in,” Harris said. “We want to be back to pre-pandemic living as soon as possible and get everybody through the process as quickly as possible.”

Because Louisville doesn’t plan to fund the program nearly as long, it’s been easier to hire additional staff with the percentage of federal dollars allowed for administrative expenses — 10% for the first round and 15% for the second. While Young Griffin said these percentages haven’t been nearly enough to implement the type of program she would like, Louisville has been able to pass along some of its administrative dollars to local nonprofits who are leading the outreach effort there.

Gonzales said he pushes the 85 program employees to be speedy when processing applications and has fired some who were unable to keep a quick pace. The staff has been able to process applications within 20 days of receiving them, he said. 

Meanwhile, applications in Shelby County often languish for months if an eviction isn’t imminent.

Spending millions: As of July 31, how much of the ERA dollars did these the municipalities distribute?

  • Louisville/Jefferson County (consolidated government): 100% of its initial $22.9 million allocation
  • San Antonio: 92% of its initial $46.8 million 
  • Memphis/Shelby County (combined ERA program): 52% of its initial $28.2 million
    Source: Treasury Department

The Treasury Department has been urging speed, believing more damage would be done by delays than by errors or fraud. In late August, it announced new policies, which increased pressure on state and local governments to quickly disperse the funds and made it easier for them to do so. As part of this, the department has pushed local officials recently to simplify their application processes by taking tenants’ word for their income and COVID-related hardship, as opposed to requiring documentation.

“Many (communities) need to do more to urgently accelerate efforts to prevent harmful evictions of vulnerable families,” the department announced. “Treasury continues to use every lever at its disposal to urge (them) to distribute assistance to renters and landlords swiftly.”

Following the Treasury Department’s lead, Louisville stopped making tenants prove their income in June — unless they live in one of the city’s three ZIP codes where the average renter earned too much to qualify for the program.

As of August, Shelby County still required documentation of income and hardship. When applications don’t include these documents, officials take the time to help tenants add them or focus on completed applications. 

Knocking on the right doors

A City of San Antonio employee helps a resident apply for rental relief during a housing assistance clinic. The city has conducted regular, widespread outreach to quickly get its ERA funding to renters. Photo by Matteo Treviño, director of policy for San Antonio City Council member Ana Sandoval

In San Antonio and Louisville, the ERA program administrators paid local nonprofits and churches to fan out across the city and find renters who needed the money.

Gonzales said these partnerships played a major role in setting San Antonio apart from many cities.

“We contracted with grassroots agencies in the communities we felt were probably not going to be reached (by) the news … the radio … (or) social media,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want anybody to be left behind.”

Memphis and Shelby County have also worked with local nonprofits — including MIFA, United Housing, and others — on outreach. But, it hasn’t paid these organizations for their outreach, which hasn’t been as regular or widespread as the efforts described by Harris and Gonzales. 

Another secret to Louisville’s success: Nonprofits are reaching out to renters who are scheduled for eviction hearings. In Shelby County, most tenants don’t show up for eviction hearings, which is where a judge might inform them about the ERA help available. Plenty of renters were also no-shows in Louisville, so in early 2021 the nonprofits started knocking on the doors of those with an upcoming court date. 

This effort has both increased the number of tenants attending their hearings and helped program officials know when the tenant had already vacated the house or apartment. In the latter case, someone from the program would inform the judge of the vacancy during the court hearing, which led to the case being dismissed or delayed instead of an eviction judgment, which can seriously damage a tenant’s credit score.

“These little things that the community has really done have been so instrumental,” Harris said. “Because who needs an eviction on your record if you’ve done everything and moved out like you were supposed to?”

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.