Real-Life Stories: Navigating the Renter Assistance Program Application Process

partment owners’ efforts to manage the eviction moratorium and the administration of the complex federal renter assistance programs has taken several twists and turns as deadlines approach and so much rent remains unpaid.

“Owners don’t want to evict unless they have to,” Caitlin Sugrue Walter, Ph.D., Vice President of Research, National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) shared during a recent session at the MFE Conference in Las Vegas. “Some apartment company CEOs are fully engaged in this process, and they know of the very specific details or individual cases of their renters and why they aren’t able to pay rent.”

While 92 percent of operators conduct outreach to residents via email and 88 percent by phone, according to an August operator survey conducted by NMHC, it’s the face-to-face conversations that are making the most difference.

“Meeting person-to-person with our residents and smothering them with compassion had led to the best outcomes,” Mary Hollands, Third Party Business Development/Operations, Gables, said. “Our associates who are doing this successfully are sharing their stories with our other associates in other regions so they can learn from it.”

Companies are diverting untold hours of staff time toward monitoring the situation, which has included revised or abandoned government and agency policies at the national and state level and numerous court rulings at many levels of the justice system.

“The federal government allotted about $50 billion toward renter assistance, but we don’t know right now if that was the right amount to resolve this issue; will it meet the demand?” Sugrue Walter said.

Owners Missing Out on Millions

Jeff Jerden, COO, Veritas Investments, said residents in his 7,000-unit portfolio based in San Francisco have missed “many millions” of dollars in rent from the eviction moratorium. “California has done a really poor job of allocating its federal funds,” he said. “As a result, we at Veritas have extended a voluntary eviction moratorium to our residents until the end of the year so that the rent relief process can fully play out.”

He said he’s had about 150 residents who have ‘ghosted’ his team, having not responded in any way, shape or form to his various outreach efforts. 

“We’ve taken steps to apply on their behalf, but it’s a two-way process and they must be a part of it,” Jerden said.

NMHC’s survey showed that of actions taken by owners to assist renters:

  • 78% offered deferred payments
  • 26% waived rent
  • 8% created its own rental assistance fund
  • 95% waived late fees
  • 100% offered payment plans
  • 50% dropped fees for credit card payments
  • 54% offered cash for keys
  • 58% modified lease terms

Sugrue Walter said that U.S. Census Bureau data from Aug. 4 to Aug. 16 show a lack of participation could pose obstacles. Of those not current on their rent payment:

  • 6% applied and received it
  • 21% applied for assistance and are waiting for response
  • 9% applied for assistance and were denied
  • 64% Did not apply for assistance
  • Majority of renters who are not current on rent payments are one or two months behind.

Jerden said California has alerted him that about 20 percent of their assistance applications have been approved. He is awarding its associates a $500 bonus if they lead residents through the process and are approved. That is one of several creative approaches Veritas and Gables have taken in the past 12 months.

Renter Advocacy Groups Helping Owners, Too

Veritas has partnered with an advocacy group and asked them to help their residents with the application process. 

“This way, our renters are being assisted by someone other than the operator, which can lead to them being more willing to participate in the program,” Jerden said. “It doesn’t make it look like we’re telling them what to do. Many did not even realize they were eligible.”

Veritas also has a dedicated team of associates who are “laser-focused” on monitoring this renter assistance program every day, he said. 

“Through our technology team, we have created an automated process that is designed to help expedite the process by being programmed to provide some of the basic, common questions about what’s going on with the federal relief plan in terms of updates on rules or regulations changes,” Jerden said.

Nonetheless, it comes back to the residents’ mindset.

“We have heard from our residents that the apartment owner (and not the federal government) is obligated to release them from this financial burden,” Jerden said. “We see it as the legislators who are at fault in this situation, in part, because they rushed to get something passed to address this need, without perhaps considering how the situation could be abused.”

Renters Roughly 2 or 3 Months Behind on Rent

Hollands said she saw decreases in evictions in her Florida (especially North Florida) and Denver markets in 2020 compared to 2019, “but consider,” she said, “evictions in those markets are typical quite high.

“Some renters are simply holding out to see if they will get more financial relief, but we believe, in the end, they will make good on this. On average, they are about two or three months behind on their rent payments.

She has posted full details about the renter assistance program and how to apply on her on the Gables company website, including in the area where residents make online rental payments.

Although the panel said this is on the minds of apartment operators, “We’ve not heard of reports or residents pocketing the cash relief they receive, but it is something we are watching,” Hollands said.

She said the funds were distributed evenly among the states, “but some are doing a better job than others. I’d say Florida, Texas and Washington, D.C., have done the best administration job. We see that the renters in D.C. are very savvy and have found every way they can to take advantage of the program.”

Paying the Rent No. 1 Reason for Move-Outs

Hollands said the pandemic has upped her annual move-out rate to about 63 percent. “Right now, rent increase is the No. 1 reason we’re seeing for moveouts; whereas before it was COVID-19,” Hollands said.

Jerden said that most of the residents who are late on rent at Veritas are ones who moved in recently.

“We saw a lot of renters move out of San Francisco, but stay in the Bay Area,” Jerden said. “Now, a lot of those are moving back to the city so they can take advantage of the falling rent, and because we’re a rent control market, they know that their rent will only be allowed to be raised by a few percent, so they want to take advantage of that price deal.”

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