Delivering Emergency Rental Assistance: Lessons from Five Cities


  • Margaret Hagan
May 27, 2022 - (8 min read)

As COVID-19 spread in 2020, cities across the U.S. sprung into action by creating local emergency rental assistance (ERA) programs, set up to respond to the financial hardships that millions of people experienced as a result of the pandemic.

With unprecedented amounts of federal aid ready to be distributed for emergency rent and utilities, cities had to quickly launch ERA programs to take applications, evaluate eligibility and distribute funds to tenants and landlords. These emergency efforts to establish ERA programs were herculean ­— but they were also first iterations. By mid-2021, many cities considered how they could improve their ERA programs’ operations and policies as more funding became available for disbursement.

During this time, the National League of Cities and the Stanford Legal Design Lab began work as strategic thought partners in creating and improving local ERA programs through the Emergency Rental Assistance Technical Assistance Program. Support provided to the five participating cities — Chicago, IL; Kankakee, IL; Milwaukee, WI; Thornton, CO and Chattanooga, TN — aimed to identify opportunities for localities to increase the impact of ERA. But the lessons that cities learned as a result of this technical assistance can be useful to any city leaders and program administrators who are refining existing programs or are creating new ERA programs for their communities.

Lessons Learned :

1. Have your data in order.

Data about expected rent relief needs and ERA program operations is essential to tracking the program’s performance and the equitable distribution of assistance. But many barriers often stand in the way of ERA teams and their partners accessing or understanding that data. This includes not having the staff capacity to collect or share data; not having a standard way of collecting data; not collecting demographic or location data and not having data use agreement rules established. Alternatively, the data may only be available after a long delay, meaning that crucial insights or problems will not be flagged promptly.

Faced with these barriers, many ERA teams struggle to harness the power of data.

Our technical assistance team helped cities get their data strategy and analysis in order by reviewing what data cities were gathering, how were they were saving it and how they were reviewing it. We also helped cities identify responsible data sharing strategies to help involve trusted third-party experts to work with them on mapping the data, running calculations and spotting opportunities.

The data infrastructure then helped the technical assistance team build extensive data maps, particularly in the cases of Milwaukee, WI and Chattanooga, TN. Such maps help to compare ERA applicant and recipient rates by location and, in some cases, can also be used for prediction: where should ERA programs focus outreach efforts to ensure equitable distribution of assistance?

Other ERA programs should look to invest in data strategy and infrastructure so they can have similar reviews and maps — doing so will help ERA program staff have ongoing, near-real-time feedback about effectiveness, as well as strategic direction regarding where to invest resources.

2. Develop a process map for a more efficient, transparent program.

Many cities want to make their ERA programs more efficient, responding quickly to applicants with limited staffing capacity. Even if an ERA program staff knows that there are some points where they struggle with timely turnarounds, a process mapping session can clarify what their agenda for improvement should be.

By holding a process map workshop, the various ERA staff members and partnership organizations can walk through, in detail, the key ERA stages — outreach, application, processing, decision-making and disbursement — to consider: Where is extra staff needed? What policies are creating needless delays? Where are applicants getting most frustrated, or dropping off most frequently?

For communities with existing ERA processes, our technical assistance team held mapping workshops to create a strategic agenda for each stage of the ERA process for the cities, as well as creating clear timelines that staff and applicants can use to understand the process.  

Groups can benefit by systematically reviewing the key stages in which to improve efficiency, reduce frustration, and improve transparency. Process mapping can also be the starting point for training new staff, periodic reviews of the program and outreach to possible applicants.

3. Sync equitable outreach efforts with community needs.

ERA program staff should review their outreach strategy to boost equitable access to rental assistance. How does the outreach strategy inform tenants and landlords about the program? How does the outreach strategy build trust and engagement with tenants and landlords? These questions are especially relevant to better connect with tenants who face structural barriers or inequities due to racism, immigration status, language access barriers or disabilities. Reviewing the data about applicants can help an agency spot where certain demographic groups are not able to access the program.

To address this, an ERA program needs to have deliberate, community-based strategies for outreach and engagement.

Outreach flyers, social media campaigns and community events can help overcome some of these accessibility barriers. Our technical assistance team helped cities with their outreach strategies by creating compelling visual designs, and developing strategic messaging to build trust with the programs and identifying community partners to build relationships with. If equity is not put at the center of an ERA strategy and metrics, then the outreach and support may not be effective in reaching marginalized groups.

An effective ERA program will not only be efficient, it will also be accessible and equitable to all who need rental assistance. If equity is not put at the center of an ERA outreach and communication strategy, the program itself will fall short of being supportive of all community members.

4. Map services out for smarter referrals.

Communities often have many services that can help tenants and landlords in trouble. But for individuals in crisis, these services are often hard to find or differentiate. Which service should a person actually call? Or which service should a caseworker send a client to based on their eligibility? Service referrals can quickly turn negative if a person keeps getting turned away from one organization after another.

A key step is to map out all the services that can serve tenants and landlords, and organize them by scenario. Which organizations can help tenants, just as they fall behind on rent? Which organizations can help tenants that have been served with an eviction lawsuit? And which organizations can help tenants that are dealing with an eviction judgment on their record, or are on the brink of homelessness?

Our technical assistance team helped cities and their partners map out relevant services for housing, food, legal, financial, and medical help for tenants by scenario. We did this through service mapping workshops, using an online whiteboard. The technical assistance team then used the working session to create better outreach fliers and service referral lists that have more organization and contextual information.

Smarter referrals can help people connect with the right resources at the right time. But with services often provided from across a range of teams within the city, county, state or community, coordination and documentation is key.

5. It takes a network.

With ERA programs and related eviction prevention efforts often spanning across multiple levels of government and the nonprofit sector, integration and coordination across these partners has proven to be key. For some cities, this might mean an emphasis on closer coordination across municipal departments and teams. But for many, deeper engagement with courts and the community itself will yield additional results.

Authentic partnerships ­­— or at least conversations and open lines of communication — with courts, community-based organizations, schools, hospitals and other nonprofits are pivotal to the effectiveness of an ERA program. These other groups should be knowledgeable about what ERA is and how residents can apply for it. They can also be drivers of the program: referring applicants to it, helping them navigate the process, and integrating ERA into their own eviction prevention efforts. And similarly, ERA program administrators should be prepared to make adjustments to the program design and outreach strategy to better meet community needs based on insights from the broader eviction prevention network.

Having a more connected ecosystem is central to all ERA efforts. With different departments or teams likely each handling outreach, application intake or review, payment and processing, proper alignment is critical to a program operating efficiently. Determining, documenting and refining these roles and processes takes time and intentionality, but pays dividends in the long run.

Applying These Lessons in Other Cities

Emergency rental assistance has been a meaningful way to assist renters and landlords hit hard by the pandemic. Without systemic shifts in how we approach housing as a country, the eviction crisis is likely to persist and people will continue to need assistance to avoid housing instability and eviction.  

To assist local governments with designing, launching, implementing and refining emergency rental assistance programs, the National League of Cities and the Stanford Legal Design Lab developed the Emergency Rental Assistance Toolkit: “How-to” Resources for Equitable & Effective Programs. Drawing from these lessons learned, the 12-resource toolkit offers step-by-step guidance, tips and tricks, and interactive worksheets that can inform and be scaled for cities nationwide. These are practical resources city teams can use to build successful rental assistance programs.

Acknowledgement: This research was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Inc., and we thank them for their support; however, the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.

Download the complete Emergency Rental Assistance Toolkit, or access the individual resources.

About the Author

Margaret Hagan

About the Author

Margaret Hagan, Executive Director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab. Follow her on Twitter @margarethagan and @LegalDesignLab.