Sustaining Success in Deploying ERA Funds in Louisville
Our earlier Bridges article discussed the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program—the federal government’s response to millions of people losing their jobs and facing evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although funding was made available, local entities throughout the country struggled to get dollars to renters in need. In this follow-up article, we describe how Louisville, Ky., was able to distribute funding to those facing evictions in a timely manner. For instance, six months after the program started, local entities across the U.S., on average, had spent 13% of their funding, while Louisville had spent almost all of it. Louisville’s approach is commendable; however, without investments in program infrastructure, especially when coupled with uncertainty in funding, sustaining assistance to renters will likely be a challenge.
Community-Based Service Providers Play a Pivotal Role in Implementing the ERA Program
In Louisville, the Association of Community Ministries (ACM) was the conduit connecting residents to the ERA program. ACM launched the StopMyEviction.org website to provide up-to-date information and offer renters a place to apply for assistance. ACM has been pivotal, because when local governments (cities, counties) started receiving ERA funding in January 2021, they did not have the infrastructure to distribute those dollars. Community-based service providers like ACM can leverage knowledge of the communities they serve and existing relationships to implement programs.
Its position within the community gave ACM a good understanding of potential issues around accessibility to rental assistance. ACM leaders listened to residents experiencing housing instability and adjusted according to their realities. To better support people in need, ACM started an in-person rental clinic to streamline a complicated and time-consuming process for obtaining assistance, which can take up to 12 weeks. “We have to think about ways in which the rent assistance gets to them, instead of them getting to the rent assistance,” noted Clare Wallace, executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries, an ACM member.
Working Together, Across Sectors
Implementing an eviction-prevention effort such as the ERA program requires buy-in, expertise and capacity from a variety of stakeholders across multiple sectors. Successful multisectoral collaborations are akin to a three-legged stool composed of organizations that provide social services (supportive services, social work and nonlegal advocacy), legal services (landlord representation and mediation) and funding (from government agencies, lenders and funders).
Collaboration and frequent communication among community-based organizations, as well as with state and local entities, is vital to recognizing and overcoming barriers. In Louisville, both governmental and nongovernmental actors attended weekly virtual meetings to review their goals and approaches to deploying ERA funds. “It is clear that Louisville had many smart and committed people in most of the systems needed for success: advocates for court policies, exceptional local government people and exceptional [nongovernmental] organizations,” said Cathy Hinko, former executive director at the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
Identifying Barriers and Innovating to Overcome Them
Working collaboratively across sectors also enables groups to identify and overcome barriers. In 2021, Louisville passed a city ordinance that established a renter “right-to-counsel” program, with services provided by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless. The program affords tenants an advocate to help them through the legal process. It was funded with $400,000 in federal money from the American Rescue Plan and is projected to operate for at least a year.
At the court level, altering the times that eviction hearings were held changed perspectives about those facing evictions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, all eviction hearings occurred in the middle of the day. Many facing eviction worked during those hours and were unable to attend court hearings. During the pandemic, courts began conducting proceedings virtually following the initial lockdown. While access to technology remained a challenge for many, court attendance rose, demonstrating that people facing eviction do want to participate in the legal proceedings.
Although Louisville has done a remarkable job disbursing funds in a timely manner, sustaining this effort presents ongoing challenges:
- The volume of applications is difficult to manage even though ACM hired and trained a team of 20 people to process them. If applications are not filed correctly, it creates further delays.
- Funding was allocated based on population rather than on an estimate of the number of renters in need. Consequently, areas with higher volumes of renters seeking assistance may not have adequate funding to respond.
- Working with groups across sectors to build a program from the ground up takes time, resources and energy. Although this effort was necessary, it required constant innovation. Staff members were working 12-hour days, seven days a week—a recipe for burnout. “We didn’t have the infrastructure. I mean, it was an incredible amount of strain and wore on an already-stretched-thin team,” noted South Louisville Community Ministries’ Wallace.
- Information about evictions is not readily available from the courts. To fill that gap, a volunteer visited the courthouse every day to collect the names of renters who had appeared on eviction matters. Although innovative, it required a lot of work from an overworked team.
Federal relief efforts and the resilience of local community stakeholders have meant that more than 14,000 unique households in Louisville received almost $75 million in rental assistance under the ERA program since January 2021. As a result, people were able to stay in their homes and keep an eviction off their records. However, evictions were a significant social issue before the pandemic and will most likely continue to be so in the future. George Eklund, director of education and advocacy at Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless, said, “During COVID, we saw a glimpse of what a well-funded eviction support network could look like for home renters, and [we] saw some success, but without funding and a viable alternative to filing an eviction for landlords, we will start to slide back to pre-COVID levels or worse.”
Knowing that federal funding allocated for rental assistance will end soon, community stakeholders are continuing to provide rental assistance while also working toward solutions for long-term housing stability.