WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has clawed back $377 million in federal emergency housing aid from states and counties, most of them controlled by Republicans, and redirected the cash to states that have been clamoring for more help, including New York, California and New Jersey.
The $46 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, first enacted by Congress in 2020, succeeded in preventing a wave of evictions stemming from the downturn caused by the pandemic. But Treasury Department officials, increasingly concerned that evictions might rise after the program winds down, have tried to ensure that none of the remaining funding goes unspent while pushing states to find other funding sources to assist poor tenants.
In recent months, White House officials have pressured governors in states with unspent funds to turn over the money to local governments within their states. Now they are going one step further, pulling back cash from states with relatively few tenants — like Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming — or localities that failed to efficiently distribute the aid, including Alabama, Arkansas and several counties in Texas.
The money, in turn, is being diverted to four states that burned through their allotted amounts — with $136 million in additional aid headed to California, $119 million to New York, $47 million to New Jersey and $15 million to Illinois, according to a spreadsheet provided by a senior administration official.
New York officials were happy with their windfall but said it fell far short of the $1.6 billion in additional aid requested by the state.
“This is better,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat whose district includes the South Bronx, which has some of the highest eviction and poverty rates in the country. “But it’s a pitiful drop in the bucket compared to what we need.”
The four states, home to roughly a third of the nation’s low-income renters, have already spent billions in emergency aid paying back rent for tenants at risk of eviction, and they have requested more funding, citing affordable housing shortages and rising rents. In January, their governors — Gavin Newsom of California, Kathy Hochul of New York, Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, all Democrats — called on Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to shift cash from low-spending states into their accounts, saying that tenants were “facing an immediate need now.”
Treasury officials responded with the reallocation — but made it clear the well was running dry, and states would soon have to make hard choices by using their own revenues, or other federal pandemic relief funding, to bankroll anti-eviction initiatives that might have been buoyed by President Biden’s stalled social spending bill.
“The emergency rental program has helped keep millions of families in their homes, reducing the economic costs of the pandemic, and built a nationwide system for eviction prevention that didn’t exist before,” the deputy Treasury secretary, Wally Adeyemo, who has overseen the implementation of the program, said in an interview.
“As these funds run out, Treasury is encouraging state and local governments to invest in long-term strategies to prevent evictions and build affordable housing, using other resources,” he added.
The program, initiated under the Trump administration and ramped up by Mr. Biden’s team, got off to a sluggish start, as state governments struggled to create new systems to process applications, determine eligibility and distribute the cash.
But by late 2021, most local systems were up and running, thanks in part to White House guidelines relaxing verification requirements.
The enormous infusion of cash, coupled with federal and local eviction bans, helped prevent or delay about 1.35 million evictions in 2021, according to an analysis published last week by Princeton’s Eviction Lab. Evictions have risen in recent months in some cities but remain below the levels predicted when the pandemic first struck.
Most of the aid that the Treasury Department is clawing back comes from states in the West, Midwest and New England with relatively high per capita incomes and low percentages of renters per capita. But part of the money is being pulled out of some of the country’s poorest states, where local officials were unable, for various political and logistical reasons, to disburse the funds.
Alabama, for instance, is losing $42 million from a total allocation of about $263 million. A spokesman for the state’s housing agency provided a memo from state housing officials claiming that the Treasury Department “did not consider that Alabama has a lower proportion of renters to homeowners” in making its aid decisions, and that an overall lack of need put “downward pressure” on applications.
But applicants and housing groups have complained that the state has made accessing the money difficult, and that a company hired to run the program rejected a large percentage of low-income tenants.
West Virginia, which has been slow to distribute a range of federal food, housing and anti-poverty aid during the pandemic, was forced to return $39 million despite recent efforts by state officials to encourage more renters to apply. And Arkansas, which took months to organize its effort, is giving back $9 million, according to the tally provided by the senior administration official.
The Biden administration had hoped to avoid shifting funding across state lines, opting instead to negotiate with governors to send unspent aid to counties and cities in their own states. Late last year, the White House persuaded Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Wisconsin and other states to voluntarily shift about $875 million to the cities and counties in their states that needed the money most.
Yet administration officials are less concerned about offending state officials that have lost funding than tamping down the expectations of Democratic governors who want them to claw back even more.
“While we had to work through some real start-up challenges, we have succeeded in helping five million vulnerable renters,” said Gene Sperling, who oversees the Biden administration’s pandemic relief programs. He said the largest complaint now was that “the funds are moving out so swiftly that there is very little left to be reallocated.”