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Planet Money investigates the logjams that keep renters from receiving aid

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A race is underway to help people facing eviction. Congress has approved an historic $47 billion in emergency rental assistance. But the vast majority of that money hasn't reached the millions of people who desperately need it.

NPR's Chris Arnold and Kenny Malone from our Planet Money podcast follow the money.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Could you, like, show us around a little bit?

AKIRA JOHNSON: I can show you around. So this is the living room.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Akira Johnson lives in Columbia, S.C., with her three kids.

MALONE: She decorates the apartment to be joyful for the kids - flowers, pillows that say sunshine.

ARNOLD: And then she shows us painted on one wall, a giant eye with amazing eyelashes.

JOHNSON: Yes, I'm a licensed cosmetologist. I specialize in eyelash extensions - takes about two hours.

MALONE: Why does it take two hours to put eyelashes on?

JOHNSON: Because we put an extension on each lash.

MALONE: Oh, every single hair gets an extension?

JOHNSON: Yes.

ARNOLD: Johnson says her eyelash business used to make about $60,000 a year, but that all went away when the pandemic hit.

MALONE: So she downsized to a cheaper apartment. She applied for unemployment, emptied her savings. But eventually she did fall behind on rent.

ARNOLD: So she applied for rental assistance. But she's been waiting now for months.

JOHNSON: They make it sound so (laughter) - we're here to help. But the process doesn't translate to that.

MALONE: To understand why, you need to start at the moment all this money was kind of created, nearly 10 months ago. We call it help-is-on-the-way day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We can finally report what our nation...

ARNOLD: Mitch McConnell and other senators gave speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: More help is on the way.

ARNOLD: As in billions of dollars for emergency rental assistance.

MALONE: Now, earlier, with those stimulus checks, IRS had all of our information. Treasury could basically just hit reply-all on our tax filings and boom the checks showed up.

ARNOLD: But with rental assistance, there is no reply-all button.

MALONE: Wally Adeyemo is the U.S. deputy treasury secretary and says local governments do have a better idea of what's going on on the ground - who's behind on rent, who's facing eviction - so...

WALLY ADEYEMO: It's easier for you to show up to a local office to talk about the need for rental assistance than it is for to show up at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue.

ARNOLD: And so Congress sent all this money down to the states and counties and cities.

MALONE: This is the first big logjam. Five hundred different rental assistance programs had to get up and running.

ARNOLD: In South Carolina, that took 135 days since those help-is-on-the-way speeches.

MALONE: Akira Johnson was starting to fall behind on rent. So she applies.

JOHNSON: They wanted you to upload your document - so basically your income, electric bill, ID - copy of your ID, your lease.

ARNOLD: This is logjam No. 2 - documentation requirement. So showing that you have a lease, I mean, that sounds simple.

CHRIS WINSTON: A lot of people in South Carolina have very informal lease arrangements.

MALONE: Chris Winston is with South Carolina's housing agency.

WINSTON: We have a lot of folks who rent from Jimmy this house or this apartment or this mobile home on some land. There's no signed arrangement. There's no signed agreements.

MALONE: Another example - providing proof you lost your job.

WINSTON: Proving that you're not doing something has proven to be a challenge.

ARNOLD: A month into South Carolina's program, Winston says they had handed out money to, like, 10 families - 10.

WINSTON: That's when I realized how many applications were being held up because of documentation requirements.

MALONE: There's this classic tradeoff for government programs, almost like a dial that you can turn. On one end is get the money out fast, and on the other is ask for lots of documents, reduce risk of fraud but go very slowly.

ARNOLD: So the federal government starts saying, look, this is an emergency here. Turn the dial up to speed - just basically get people to check a box saying, look, I swear legally that I need this help, and give them the money before they get evicted.

MALONE: About 180 days after help-is-on-the-way speeches, South Carolina does that. And more money starts flowing.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, things got very serious for Akira Johnson.

JOHNSON: They filed an eviction on me. They knocked on my door with the eviction paper.

ARNOLD: She found out that the state was willing to pay that $6,000 she owed in back rent. But - and this is the third big logjam - under the rules of most of these local programs, that check has to be written out to the landlord.

MALONE: Many landlords do cooperate with rental assistance programs. But her landlord - company called DLH Properties - refused to provide, like, a tax document that South Carolina needed.

ARNOLD: It's not really clear why, but it meant Johnson couldn't get the rent money. And the landlord was pushing ahead to evict her.

JOHNSON: I still don't know why they won't accept the money. But you got families that you'd rather see on the street. That didn't make sense to me.

ARNOLD: DLH Properties did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. And after months of trying to get this help, Akira had an eviction hearing in just four days.

JOHNSON: I feel like if we did lose the place, I will probably have to send them to they grandmother's. (Crying) That's like separating from them. Sorry.

ARNOLD: That's OK.

JOHNSON: (Crying) But, you know, I would probably rather go to a shelter, where we can all be together, you know what I mean? So it's probably the hardest part, just thinking about being separated from them.

ARNOLD: At that moment, it had been 263 days since the help-is-on-the-way speeches. And around the country, people have lost their homes because of these delays in rental assistance money.

MALONE: But to deal with the landlord problem, a handful of programs have started to cut checks directly to tenants, including, just recently, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENVELOPE RIPPING)

JOHNSON: Check came in (ph).

MALONE: Just days ago, 283 days after those help speeches, Akira Johnson finally got a check in her mail in her name.

JOHNSON: That's it (laughter).

MALONE: How does it feel to look at that check?

JOHNSON: Great. I'm just ready to go forward. Yup. It's relief.

ARNOLD: So it looks like Akira and her family are going to be OK. And nationally, these programs are reaching more people.

MALONE: Treasury says around 1.5 million payments have now gone out to people. But many times that number still need help. I'm Kenny Malone.

ARNOLD: And I'm Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "VALLEY OF HOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.