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May 31, 2020; CNN and the New York Times

To date, predictions of an eviction avalanche or tsunami have been overblown. But will it stay that way?

A common saying in real estate is that all housing markets are local, and this includes rental housing. Except when they are not. A national crisis such as the Depression-level unemployment that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic would appear to be such an exception.

Still, locality in rental housing matters a lot­, even when the country faces a national economic shutdown and 40 million people lose their jobs in 10 weeks. For example, the nation’s eviction moratoriums are in reality a patchwork of state and local provisions that were adopted in an effort to keep tenants housed until more financial assistance could arrive. Grassroots moratoriums were formalized in the CARES Act (which did establish a federal moratorium until July 25th on the roughly 30 percent of rental units that relied on federal financing) and later extended by state and local initiatives. Since then, some assistance has arrived, although there are countless reports of delays in delivering stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and rental assistance funds through state and local governments.

A moratorium is, however, by its nature, a short-term tactic, staving off the rent collector for a time. Realistically, long-term rental assistance is the most rational solution.

Even as unemployment continues to rise and a quick snapback to economic “normal” seems exceedingly unlikely, a form of rental assistance that works like food stamps makes some sense. A simple entitlement that puts the money into the hands of tenants and fills a gap between income and costs is ideal. Such a program is being tested right now in the nation’s capital. DC Flex provides the kind of rental assistance that fills the gap between household income and rent shortfalls.

“This is a program meant to help families who have skin in the game,” said Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz, the executive director of Capital Area Asset Builders. “They’re working, they’re trying to maintain the rent, but from time to time, they may come short.”

When a family qualifies for DC Flex, they receive $7,200 a year via a program-specific bank account. That annual assistance remains available for four years. On a monthly basis, families can withdraw any amount of money less than or equal to the full amount of their rent. This allows them to save money in times where they don’t need as much, as well as providing a full month’s rent in times of financial strain.

DC Flex is a project of the DC Department of Human Services and the Capital Area Asset Builders, a nonprofit community economic development advocacy group.

What will happen to tenants as a system of rental assistance remains under debate nationally? It depends on structural factors, for sure, but it also depends a lot on the actions of landlords, tenants, and courts at the state and local level. Tolstoy said in his novel Anna Karenina that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“ It’s going to be like that with landlord-tenant relationships. Robert “Woody” Widrow of the community development nonprofit Raise Texas calls them “the second most passionate relationship you’ll ever have.”

Perhaps later this month the Senate will take a look at the House-passed HEROES bill to see how rental assistance might be channeled through programs like DC Flex which are designed to empower renters over the long term. Using federal dollars creatively could even lay the foundation for new forms of rental assistance that empower households without entangling them in red tape.—Spencer Wells

Thanks to Molly Martin, Advocacy Director with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, for her assistance in preparing this article.