WASHINGTON — Two days after a federal judge struck down a national moratorium on evictions, the Biden administration said on Friday that it would accelerate the distribution of vast sums of rental aid that state and local governments have been slow to spend.
The Treasury Department issued new rules meant to make it easier for tenants to gain access to the $46.5 billion in aid. They simplify applications, cover an expanded list of costs like moving expenses and hotel stays, and require programs to help tenants even if their landlords refuse to participate.
Housing advocates praised the changes, which include an expansion of legal aid to tenants and a promise of advice to localities struggling to create the programs, which are intended to avert evictions caused by the economic shocks from the pandemic.
“Wow, this is huge,” said Christina Rosales, the deputy director of Texas Housers. “I think this will mean more tenants get the help they need.”
But with about 400 state and local governments operating programs with varying degrees of urgency, the immediate effect of the changes is unclear. Some states, including New York and Florida, have not even begun to accept applications.
The sums at stake rival the annual budget of the federal housing department. Congress approved $25 billion of emergency assistance in December and an additional $21.5 billion in March. But only a sliver of that money has reached landlords or tenants so far.
New York has $800 million to spend just from the December allocation, and Florida has $871 million. California, with $1.5 billion to spend, has been accepting applications since March. But it has approved awards of only about $72 million, or 5 percent of its funds, and paid out less than $5 million.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program allocates money to states and to cities and counties with populations of at least 200,000 if they chose to run their own programs. Some have simply been slow to act: legislatures in New York and South Carolina did not authorize their programs until April.
Others started quickly but hit obstacles: software glitches that made applications impossible to process or demands for documentation, like proof of income, that tenants found hard to produce. Many of the most disadvantaged tenants do not know the program exists.
Some landlords have declined to participate, betting they have more to gain by forcing out tenants in arrears and attracting those better able to pay.
A moratorium on evictions, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered tenants some protection, though it contains significant exceptions and has been unevenly enforced. Landlords have objected to the ban, saying it unfairly imposed on them the costs of housing the needy, and courts have split on the issue.
In the most significant ruling on the issue, Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday found the agency had exceeded its powers in issuing the moratorium, which was established under the Trump administration and expanded under President Biden. The Biden administration is appealing the court ruling, which Judge Friedrich put on hold until next Wednesday.
It is unclear what effect the removal of the moratorium would have. About 20 states have their own eviction bans, and the federal version is scheduled to expire on June 30, though it might be extended again if its legality is upheld.
Still, the prospect of increased evictions has alarmed the administration, which was already searching for ways to get localities to speed up the use of their vast rental funds. Gene Sperling, the White House official in charge of making sure the $1.9 trillion package of emergency relief passed in March is distributed quickly and efficiently, said officials were taking “all steps in our power to prevent evictions.”
Some of the streamlined rules announced on Friday apply only to the second pot of funding, approved in March, which only became available to programs on Friday. The administration used the new rules to make a point of telling programs not to let reluctant landlords stand in the way.
While the December round of assistance already allowed states to aid tenants whose landlords refuse to apply, the new rules require it. They also reduce the time programs must wait for a landlord response.
“This is exactly what’s needed,” said Rachel Fee, the executive director of the New York Housing Conference, a policy and advocacy nonprofit. “We know that not all landlords are going to be willing to take this assistance directly.”
Kody Glazer of the Florida Housing Coalition said the emphasis on direct assistance would “appreciably reduce evictions.”
Gregory Brown of the National Apartment Association, which represents landlords, declined to comment, saying the group was still reviewing the Treasury Department guidance.
The new rules also make clear that residents of subsidized housing can receive the rental aid. They also now require programs to show they are reaching the most disadvantaged tenants.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, praised the administration’s decision to include a $20 million program for expanded legal aid for tenants. An experimental program in Charleston found that providing lawyers raised the tenants’ success rate in court to 72 percent, compared to 4 percent among tenants without representation.
“Having more people to represent tenants makes a huge difference,” she said.
Still, she added, that is not the reason South Carolina has yet to spend the $272 million in federal aid allocated to the state under the legislation passed in December. “The main hold up,” she said, “was the Legislature — they didn’t get a program up and running until this week.”