How to Line Up Rent Aid — and a Backup Plan

If you owe rent debt, apply for assistance programs and also open talks with your landlord to try to avoid eviction.

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Written by Liz Weston, CFP®
Senior Writer
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
Lead Assigning Editor
Fact Checked
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Co-written by Sean Pyles
Senior Writer

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If you're one of the millions of renters behind on payments due to the pandemic, you may be able to get help from rental assistance programs. Congress has appropriated $46.5 billion in emergency assistance to help cover back rent and utilities, but getting a share of that money isn’t automatic or guaranteed; you'll have to apply.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has added a new tool to help people find rental and utility assistance programs in their states. The site also includes a link to find help from housing counselors.

A ban on most rental evictions, ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ended July 31. Some areas have additional protections (self-help legal site Nolo has a list of state eviction protections).

Using the CFPB tool may be a last-ditch route to find help if you’re behind on payments. And it's a smart move to start exploring other options to deal with back rent debt as well.

Emergency assistance for low-income renters

Congress approved $25 billion in renters’ assistance in December 2020, followed by an additional $21.5 billion in March. To qualify, at least one member of the household must be eligible for unemployment or have lost income or incurred expenses related to the pandemic. A tenant must have an income that is 80% or below the area’s median income, but program administrators are required to give a preference to applicants with incomes that are 50% or below.

The money can be used to pay rent or utilities that are already owed or to assist with future rent, says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing.

Each state and local program has its own criteria for applicants. You may need to fill out a simple form — or you may have to come up with copies of everything from W-2s to a utility bill from last spring.

"Some have very simple application processes that allow for self-certification for almost all eligibility requirements," Yentel says. "Others require really burdensome documentation that can be very hard for some of the lowest-income and most marginalized people to produce."

Some programs also have requirements for landlords, such as mandating that they forgive a portion of the unpaid rent or forgo rent increases for a certain period, Yentel says. Not all landlords are willing to agree to that. The programs are allowed to pay tenants directly in those cases, she says, but some simply move on to the next applicant on the list.

The housing coalition maintains a list of programs on its site, or you can search for your state or city and the words “emergency rental assistance.” You also could contact a HUD-approved housing counselor by calling 877-542-9723 to learn about your available options.

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Eviction bans are ending, financial fallout isn't

Eviction bans typically don’t prevent your landlord from charging you late fees or turning your account over to a collection agency, which can damage your credit. An eviction — or even the legal filing that starts the process, in some states — can effectively prevent you from renting decent housing for years.

Consider reaching out to your landlord to discuss your options. You may be able to work out a repayment plan — if you’re back at work, for example, or can tap other resources such as tax refunds, stimulus checks, savings, or a loan from friends or family. (Get the agreement in writing, to protect yourself in case the landlord files eviction proceedings anyway.) If you can’t afford the place where you’re living, ask if the landlord would be willing to let you end your lease early to avoid incurring more debt.

If all else fails, you likely still have an option to deal with rent debt: bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy can temporarily stave off eviction to allow you more time to negotiate a repayment agreement. In most cases, you would need to file before your landlord starts eviction proceedings. If you can’t come to an agreement, then bankruptcy can legally erase the debt.

Contact a bankruptcy lawyer for more information; the first consultation is often free.