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Promising practices for ERA programs

Last Updated: 6/23/21 – The U.S. Department of the Treasury has made funding available to assist households that are unable to pay rent, utilities, home energy costs, and other expenses related to housing. The funds are provided directly to states, U.S. territories, local governments, and (in the case of ERA 1) Indian tribes or Tribally Designated Housing Entities, as applicable, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. As a result, these grantees across the United States have been working hard to stand up their Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs in order to address the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on millions of American renters. Each ERA grantee has some flexibility to develop their rental assistance program to suit the needs of their local community, while complying with requirements outlined in their ERA financial assistance agreement, the ERA statute, and Treasury’s guidelines. 

Treasury has engaged with ERA grantees across the country to identify program strategies that promise to speed up program implementation, more efficiently deliver program benefits, enhance program integrity, and improve tenant and landlord access to programs—particularly for vulnerable and harder to reach populations. As grantees across the country build program infrastructure designed to meet the specific needs of their communities, many have reported that early successes have relied on leveraging local resources, data-driven operational analyses, and incorporating continuous operational improvement strategies into their regular practices. Specific promising practices include: 1

1 Treasury recognizes that programs vary according to local circumstances; these examples are intended to help programs identify opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of their own programs but may not be universally applicable to all grantees. The program information provided herein is intended solely to illuminate “promising practices” that grantees might consider when developing their jurisdiction’s program policies and infrastructure. All such policy development must proceed in accordance with the governing legal authorities and published policy guidance. Nothing herein should be construed as (i) altering these requirements or (ii) confirming that any specific grantee’s program policies or administrative practices have been fully reviewed and found compliant.

Partnerships in Program Implementation

Many grantees who have quickly implemented their ERA programs were able to do so by leveraging existing local partnerships with nonprofits and community organizations already working on housing stability issues. These local organizations are integrated into the community and can provide holistic support across a variety housing stability, food security, financial, and health services. Some grantees have made efforts to integrate their ERA programs into “one program” with other relevant services, allowing program providers to identify appropriate resources to address the full range of applicants’ needs.

Grantees that reported strong partnerships with nonprofit program providers emphasized that these relationships rely on building a shared vision and infrastructure that supports continuous communication about ERA program development, program requirements and definitions, and the flow of ERA applications/payments.

Partnerships between grantees have also allowed for more consistent application experiences within the locality. In some cases, grantees have found administrative economies of scale by partnering with neighboring grantees or overlapping jurisdictions. Partnerships between grantees can ensure that funds reach the highest need communities while guarding against awarding duplicative benefits to residents.

Examples

City of Charlotte, NC has developed a highly collaborative relationship with a local affordable housing nonprofit. Information collected from the nonprofit feeds into a data-system that keeps city administrators informed about program outcomes. The city and nonprofit have regular communications, and the city maintains a regular schedule of program auditing to support quality control and real-time problem solving, allowing the program to continually adjust to changing programmatic needs.

Montgomery County, PA has intentionally partnered with a preexisting network of homelessness and eviction prevention activities. Outreach and program implementation occur through six community-based nonprofit organizations spread geographically throughout the county. These include organizations that specialize in provide culturally and linguistically competent services to the hardest hit areas of the county. These organizations maintain a common information system and use the local housing crisis response’s coordinated entry system, which connects applicants with a range of relevant services and programs.

Similarly, the State of Ohio implements their ERA program through 47 nonprofits across the state that offer a range of services. These organizations use a common backend system that helps to align program requirements and guard against duplication of benefits. The state regularly coordinates communications about program challenges and best practices, creating a channel for more efficiently cultivating program development.

Clark County and the Cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and Henderson, NV created the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) and work together through local nonprofits sharing a common data system online. These nonprofits have also managed hiring temporary staff to help with application processing, allowing the programs to more easily scale depending on application volumes.

Culturally and Linguistically Competent Outreach

Across the country, grantees are identifying strategies to reach communities where residents were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most grantees have incorporated Spanish language translation services into their application processes, with some grantees offering support in multiple languages. Most grantees also have expanded the availability of their ERA application by supporting multiple channels for residents to apply. Many grantees have complemented an online application with access to a call center application support through 211 partnerships and/or access to phone-based housing counselors.

Some grantees have achieved significant benefits by partnering with trusted community organizations with high levels of cultural and linguistic competencies. Intentional partnerships with trusted organizations can especially help support outreach efforts to serve harder to reach populations that face technological, cultural, and linguistic barriers to ERA participation. These partnerships can be especially critical when working with immigrant populations, the elderly, survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking, and other marginalized communities. In some cases, these organizations have provided in-person application support while maintaining social distancing protocols.

Many grantees have reported that these partnerships are occur through sub-contracts and engagement with smaller nonprofits that work with specific vulnerable populations disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examples

The City of San Antonio, TX has been intentional in contracting with community organizations to reach target populations. They have started contracting with a collaborative of local healthcare organizations, which in turn works with 20 nonprofit grassroots organizations who have deep ties to the community. For instance, one of these partners is an organization that provides various support services to domestic workers and has strong ties to the local Spanish-speaking community. Administrators have noted that nonprofits trained to conduct in-person outreach (while maintaining social distancing health standards) are particularly helpful partners, such as those who have contracted to do census outreach.

The State of Maine has translated their application and program materials into eight languages, and program administrators have found that building partnerships with cultural brokers are critical to engagement with local immigrant populations. For instance, partnerships with local organizations focused on Somali immigrants have helped the program identify more specific services that can help these households successfully navigate the ERA program while also providing a bridge to other relevant health and human services programs offered by the state.

The State of Illinois has started working on program outreach efforts using grassroots networks and trusted local businesses. Outreach partners have included small grocery stores, laundry mats, local faith-based organizations, and the Latino consulates, and have resulted in greater ERA visibility in the community and through ethnic media.

The State of North Carolina has noted that partnering with communities of trust is a critical part of their outreach efforts. These partners include networks of faith-based organizations in predominately African American communities, as well as coordination with school systems serving high need areas to help identify families who may be in crisis and in need of ERA program support.

Richland County, SC has found strong partnerships opportunities with county’s thirteen libraries spread out across the county. In addition to providing convenient centers of support to residents, the library system also has a preexisting relationship with local social workers. This network has provided the ERA program administrators an opportunity to train the existing network professionals to educate residents about the ERA program. This effort has led to increased accessibility of professional and holistic support for households in need of ERA services, while also providing applicants to the free online access and other resources.

Intentional Landlord Engagement

Landlords are critical beneficiaries and stakeholders of the ERA program. Many grantees have reached out to landlord associations to build relationships and identify barriers to landlords’ participation in the ERA program. Regular conversations with small, medium-sized and large landlord organizations, as well as public housing entities, has been critical in garnering increased landlord participation in many ERA programs. In some cases, grantees have asked their culturally and linguistically competent partners to incorporate landlord outreach into their targeted outreach efforts since tenants and landlords often live within the same communities and have similar application support needs.

These proactive landlord communications have also been critical to landlord participation when grantees require landlords to make concessions or commitments to providing the tenant with some assurance of housing stability. Further, many grantees have found that creating separate applications for landlords and tenants have met landlord’s needs for a streamlined process and created operational efficiencies for grantees.

Examples

The State of Kentucky and other Kentucky grantees engaged in proactive outreach to area landlords. These conversations inspired collaboration among the region’s grantees and led to coordinated ERA application requirements and forms. This created a more predictable program process for landlords (especially those whose properties cross jurisdictions) and improved landlord participation rates.

The State of Massachusetts’s ERA program has started to collaborate with local state housing partnerships to reduce some paperwork requirements for income eligibility when the tenant lives in subsidized housing. This effort has resulted in payment processes that allow e batched payments to larger landlords. Approximately two-thirds of Massachusetts’s ERA applications live in subsidized housing units, and grantees report that these batched payments allow many tenants and landlords to receive ERA assistance more efficiently.

Partnerships with Broader Eviction Diversion Programs

Many grantees have found that partnerships with the local court systems and legal services organizations are critical tools in preventing housing insecurity and helping landlords recover from built-up rental arrears. While the court systems and eviction processes vary across different states and localities, many grantees have found that proactively engaging with local courts, legal aid organizations, and other stakeholders involved in the eviction process can help to reach renters most at risk of housing instability. Many programs have developed systems where renters facing eviction in the court system have lower documentation requirements to prove eligibility for ERA funds.

Efforts by ERA grantees are sometimes complementary to the broader eviction diversion programs and play an important function in expediting ERA applications in cases where the landlord has already started the evictions process. Many of these eviction diversion efforts seek to avoid eviction at the earliest stage of the process and often incorporate support from legal service professionals and eviction mediators. Some ERA grantees have found that court data can also inform targeted outreach efforts to landlords and/or high-need geographic areas.

Examples

The City of Memphis and Shelby County’s joint program has developed a data sharing relationship with the local court system. This partnership allows for ERA program administrators to have real-time information about neighborhoods with increased numbers of evictions. This information supports more targeted tenant and landlord outreach activities. Using this data, the ERA program administrators have been able build relationships with larger apartment complexes, leading to direct engagement with tenants on the premises. Memphis and Shelby County have also contracted with, a local nonprofit organization with experience providing legal services to tenants facing evictions, helping them to reach settlements and avoid evictions. Further grantee efforts to expand access to legal services include engaging with volunteers from the local law school in order to extend tenants’ access to legal services. The Memphis and Shelby County ERA program expedites ERA applications that come through these channels, which has allowed to many households to use ERA funds to stay in stable housing when faced with imminent eviction.

The State of Massachusetts has developed a two-tiered eviction process that has integrated the ERA program into eviction proceedings. In the first tier, landlords and tenants work with a mediator who can direct them to ERA resources to cover qualified rental arrears. This state-funded program also engages with legal aid services, as well as housing reinstatement services for those cases where tenant ultimately experience eviction.

The City of Philadelphia’s ERA program is also integrated directly into the city’s eviction court system. The court requires defendants to apply for the city’s ERA program before allowing the eviction to proceed. Further, all landlords who enroll in the city’s ERA program are automatically enrolled in the eviction diversion system, alerting them to the resources offered by the city to help avoid tenant evictions, such as nonprofit mediation services.

Collaboration with Local Utility Companies

In some localities, grantees have found that engaging with the local utility companies can enhance efficiencies within the program. In some cases, utility companies can help communicate with potential ERA applicants about benefits of the program.

Thoughtful deployment of data collected through online applications can also help provide more immediate relief to applicants when strategically shared with utility companies.

Example

Richland County, SC has developed a strong relationship with the area’s utility company. The county proactively reached out to the company to discuss ERA program benefits and found receptive partners. Upon notification that a tenant has applied for ERA funds, the utility company gives the applicant a grace period, pausing disconnection of utility services and allowing ERA program administrators to process the payment.

The City of Memphis and Shelby County’s joint program developed a partnership with the local utility company to more quickly identify renters who have started ERA applications. This partnership builds off a pre-existing relationship between the utility company and other local government programs which further evolved as the ERA infrastructure was being developed. Originally program administrators would send notifications to the utility company in batches, but the process has since evolved into more direct data sharing. Once identified as an ERA recipient, the applicant receives a grace period on utility payments and qualifies to have utilities turned back on when applicable. These processes expedite the effectiveness of the application even before the program administers funds to address utility arrears.

Adjusting Program Strategies to Meet Local Needs

Many grantees have noted that continuous improvement and nimble outreach strategies have been critical to program implementation. Sensitivity to the challenges faced by the locality’s ERA applicants can allow grantees to pivot to more effective strategies.

Examples

The City of Phoenix, AZ noted that incorporating experienced local community action representatives into the oversight of the application process has been critical to raising application completion rates. Program administrators commented that these representatives are sensitive to the challenges of the local populations and have allowed the program to better problem solve application challenges and improve training of line staff.

Recognizing that residents may not realize that various rental assistance programs offered through other funding streams have different eligibility requirements, the CHAP program launched a “re-education” campaign on social media. This effort is designed to reach potential applicants who may have been discouraged from seeking help due to past experiences of ineligibility for other similar-sounding programs.

Making the Application Process Simple and User Friendly

Many jurisdictions have increased the reach and accessibility of programs by making the application process more user-friendly for both households and landlords. This can include efforts to simplify the application process itself, to make the application itself easily accessible online, or provide other ways to make the applications more generally accessible to tenants and landlords.

Examples

The State of Alaska, the Municipality of Anchorage and 15 agencies representing 148 federally recognized tribes collaboratively developed a standardized mobile-friendly application system using five nonprofit providers from across the state. The application was broken into several stages that each required 3-5 minutes, and the program implemented text messaging functionalities to speed the process. The collaborative planning and implementation approach led to one third of renters within Alaska applying to the program, with Alaska Native/American Indian applicants representing 28% of responses.

The State of Virginia has implemented efforts to address incomplete applications with outreach phone calls. Combined with translation services, this targeted and direct phone outreach helps to push many applicants in high need areas to complete their application. Program administrators have noted that many applicants had not realized that their applications were incomplete, and these outbound efforts have a direct correlation with improvements in application completion.

Using Fact-Specific Proxies to Simplify Documentation Requirements

Many grantees have also built significant efficiencies through fact-specific proxies. Many are exploring additional strategies to expand the use of written attestation to document household income when coupled with other reasonable fact-specific proxy for household income, such as applicants’ participation in other government programs with similar income eligibility criteria or census-tract data on the average incomes in the household’s geographic area.

Example

In the City of Philadelphia, PA, the Department of Planning and Development marshalled efforts to quickly build a website, custom application, and back-end database in English and Spanish. The system can cross-reference data with public housing authorities and local utility companies (which helps reduce some of the applicant’s documentation requirements for debts owed), validates income eligibility requirements, and guards against duplication of benefits.

The States of Indiana and Massachusetts also have found significant efficiencies by reducing documentation requirements for applicants who can have eligibility verified through other state-based health and human services programs.

The State of Kentucky has started to implement a zip-code based fact-specific proxy to reduce income documentation requirements in high need areas. The state-based grantee has worked with Louisville and Lexington to aligned program design and policies. These shared practices have also helped reduce the administrative burden of the urban county governments.

Automation Supporting Application Prioritization

Many grantees are using automated systems to help smooth application processing. Some have also implemented additional prioritization considerations beyond the statutory requirements in order to better identify the highest need applicants within their local community.

Examples

The City of Houston and Harris County, TX have automated prioritization tiers. In addition to the prioritization requirements required by statute, the program also prioritizes households with a rental obligation below fair market rent as a proxy for vulnerability to housing insecurity. Within prioritized tiers, the program randomly selects applications. The program also gives targeted outreach and support to applicants with an active eviction case. Administrators note that moving programs away from a “first come, first serve” strategy supports improved quality of completed applications and ensure that funds reach populations more vulnerable to housing instability.

The State of Oregon has sought to emphasize an equitable approach to their ERA prioritization schema in order to have a statewide consistent use of the framework. ERA program administrators added additional prioritization tiers based on household size, months behind on rent, 2020 wildfire impact, and whether a household lives within a census tract with a high prevalence of low-income renters by using a nationally recognized think tank’s rental priority index. Through this strategy, Oregon hopes to ensure that ERA funds reach applications in areas disproportionately affected by housing instability due to COVID-19 and to align with Fair Housing principles and practices.

Data-Driven Program Strategies

Robust data systems and real-time reporting can be critical in providing real-time learning opportunities to grantees that can help inform continuous improvement efforts. These data systems also support ongoing reporting to key stakeholders within the community, including local government representatives, the media, and local citizens.

Many grantees are publicly reporting information about their program outcomes through online dashboards. While some of these dashboards show simple snapshots of applications processed and dollars paid, many also allow the viewer to see how program inputs and outputs have changed overtime. Many dashboards also show program statistics across various community demographics and/or across geographic areas, such as statistics broken down by county, district, or zip code.

Examples

The City of Charlotte, NC has worked with a nonprofit partner, to develop a real-time internal-facing dashboard that shows application status broken down by key performance, geographic, and demographic measures. Administrators report that the dashboard informs programmatic strategic decision-making and improves ease of conducting internal audits. Readily available real-time data helps administrators to quickly respond to inquiries from applicants, local leaders, and stakeholders, cultivating more trust within the community.

The City of Houston and Harris County, TX maintains a data system that maps ERA applications and payments and analyzes actual payments made by neighborhood against a model of expected payments by neighborhood d based on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index. These analytics have motivated targeted outreach strategies to underserved communities, such as identifying new locations for ERA program navigators and eviction prevention drive-through events.

The State of Indiana engages in periodic continuous improvement events. Administrators bring in non-program staff to assist in a full procedural review to critically think through processes and identify whether there are opportunities to improve program efficiency, quality, and equity.

Many grantees, across the country including, but not limited to the States of Missouri, Maine, Kentucky, and Virginia have also indicated that running weekly analytics across the various program processes have enabled them to identify application bottlenecks, allowing for targeted problem-solving to smooth and accelerate application processing.

 

 

Across the country, local grantee administrators are working hard to implement programs to provide rental assistance to their constituents. While this is not an exhaustive list of promising practices, these insights may be useful to ERA grantees as they build out programs to help households maintain their housing, despite the financial uncertainty experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.