What to Know About Rental Assistance Programs

Couple with dog in apartment.

There are few things scarier than feeling like you can’t afford to keep a roof over your head, particularly if you have children. Maybe you lost your job and don’t have the savings to pay your landlord. Fortunately, rental assistance programs exist to help you in those times of need. Here’s what to know and where to find help.

What is Rental Assistance?

Rental assistance programs were originally created to distribute federal or state government funds to qualifying renters and/or landlords. Typically, a local government agency distributes the funds, whether the money comes from the state or federal level.

Funding is often given out in response to a major need: Covid-19 is the best recent example. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 made available over $20 billion in federal funds to local governments to assist qualifying households. In some cases, new local agencies were formed to manage these funds, though in most cases, the funds were distributed to existing local housing assistance programs.

What Rental Assistance Programs Cover

Each program is different, with different criteria and different goals, so it’s possible you could receive funds for costs other than rent. However, generally, funds primarily help renters cover budget shortfalls in two areas, both tied to keeping you in your home:

  • Rent payments
  • Utility payments

Typically, the goal is to help families stay in their homes and keep their necessary utility services operating, such as water, electricity, and gas.

Rental assistance may also take the form of affordable rental housing. In other words, the available assistance may be helpful in finding and accessing more affordable housing, in addition to payments covering the monthly rental fees.

How to Find a Program

You’ll need to look for programs specific to your area. Start with the list of local rental resources maintained by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Find your state and see what is available to you.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also maintains a list of renter resources, which you can narrow down by state and county. New programs are typically developed in response to a specific need, so keep an eye out for new applicable programs in your region (try an online search for your area).

How to Qualify for Relief or Assistance

Every program has different requirements, so you’ll need to check what they are for your area, but the most common program requirements are that you:

  • Live in a particular city, county, or state;
  • Have a household income that doesn’t exceed a certain amount (based on where you live and how many live in the household); and
  • Don’t live in a home where the monthly rent exceeds the program’s specified limit.

What to Do if the Local Program Ends

A program ending can pose a frustrating problem for renters. The first thing you can do is keep open communication with your landlord. It’s best if you can try right away to come up with a repayment plan that satisfies both parties.

Also check to see if your state offers eviction protections. Many states have put special eviction protections in place for tenants who were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. While some of those protections may have expired in some states, certain states (including New York) have no expiration date on the protections—assuming the hardship took place during a specified period. Although these protections may not prevent an eviction in the end, they could provide time and resources to help you avoid a possible pending eviction.

It’s also recommended you work with a housing counselor. Nonprofit foreclosure and eviction counselors can help you understand your options, know your rights as a tenant, connect you to applicable resources, and help you work with your landlord and other creditors.

Finally, if your landlord has filed a lawsuit to have you evicted, work with an attorney if at all possible. Depending on your location and circumstances, you may qualify to receive free legal support. Start with LawHelp.org to find legal resources in your state or county.

Even if you don’t have a lawyer, be sure to follow any instructions you receive from the court. You’ll typically be given the opportunity to file a written appeal explaining why you shouldn’t be evicted. This response should include information about your efforts to correct the situation, what aid or relief you’ve received (or attempted to receive), and any efforts by the landlord to help or hinder your ability to pay.

Longer-term Solutions to Paying Rent

It’s important to understand that most rental assistance programs are designed to be temporary solutions to extraordinary circumstances. They’re not meant to pay your monthly rent on a long-term basis. If you regularly struggle to manage bills and expenses, consider working with a free credit counselor to rebalance your budget, focus your priorities, and figure out how to make life more affordable.

If you’re struggling financially, we can help you. We offer one-on-one foreclosure counseling, which also addresses renter evictions and provides similar support for renters. Connecting with a certified counselor is always free and confidential.

Tagged in Laws and legal questions, Managing a loss of income

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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