American renters need a lot more help to keep a roof over their heads

An eviction in February 2, 2009 in Adams County, Colorado. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As staffers at the Chicago Department of Housing watched the job loss numbers roll in this March, they realized that many thousands of their fellow residents were going to need some serious help paying rent. 

Almost 20% of America’s third largest city already lived in poverty before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and most of them received no assistance with housing costs. 

“We were just like, oh, that means when this eviction moratorium is over there's just going to be like tens or hundreds of thousands of people behind on their rent,” says Paul Williams, a policy analyst with Chicago’s Department of Housing. “They’re just going to get evicted. So, the idea was how do we mitigate as much of that as possible? How can we get money out the doors as fast as possible?”

Williams and his colleagues managed to get $2 million together from the city’s affordable housing opportunity fund and teamed up with the Family Independence Initiative, an organisation that helps orchestrate basic income pilot programmes. The nonprofit already had the financial software necessary to move the funds quickly to those who had lost work, and faced an uncertain future in their homes. 

Using the nonprofit’s existing software, Chicago policymakers organised a plan that gives money directly to tenants. The funds can be used for anything: If rent has already been paid, tenants can spend it on food or utilities. 

But the number of city residents who required housing aid massively outpaced the resources available at the municipal level. In the first week, 83,000 applications rolled in. The programme only had sufficient funding to reach 2,000 households.

There are no doubt tens of thousands of additional residents who could have applied beyond that already staggering number. 

 “Obviously, there are plenty of people who didn't hear about the programme and weren't able to apply,” Williams says. “But of those who did hear, the demonstration of need was still huge.”

Chicago is not alone in trying to fill the yawning gap for rental assistance in the midst of the pandemic. Eviction bans are still in place throughout much of the country, although a handful of states have begun to end them. Tenant groups fear that when they phase out, millions of Americans will lose their homes in the absence of government aid. 

But at the federal level, efforts to move housing relief bills through the US Congress have so far been stymied by the Republican Senate. One of President Donald Trump’s economic advisors even questioned the idea of further stimulus efforts, while conservative senators fear that doing more for those in need could promote indolence. 

That leaves cities like Chicago stuck with a bill they cannot possibly afford to pay in full. 

In Dallas, $13.7 million was spent for rent, mortgage and utility relief and demand was so overwhelming that the programme reached its limit within a week of launching. In Minneapolis, an emergency rental assistance policy could only cover a seventh of those who applied before the deadline was up. In Philadelphia, which budgeted for 4,000 recipients, the fund hit its limit in a matter of days after 13,000 applications poured in. If everyone who was actually eligible for these funds had known of their existence, those numbers would be even starker. 

“The amount of money is serious money from the standpoint of a city trying to cobble together a programme, but puny from the standpoint of the need,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. “All the [rent aid programmes] I've seen are incredibly oversubscribed. Cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are trying to come up with these interim steps. That's really important, but it's only going to help a little bit.”

Even before this crisis the United States did not provide much assistance for renters. Unlike food aid or medical assistance, which have budgets that can expand to meet the number of people who are eligible, the Housing Choice Voucher programme that helps with rental costs is capped. Only about a fifth of Americans who are eligible for help with their housing actually receive any subsidy from the federal government. 

Now the country is confronting something far beyond the usual tragedies of the American housing market. The scope of disaster facing countless families is even greater than what occurred during the Great Recession, which is why cities are stepping up as they haven’t before. 

“The amount of people who are in need of rent assistance and the amount of money that is being diverted and placed into these programmes is at a much higher level than it had been before this,” says Samantha Batko, research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “All of this is unprecedented. The magnitude of what we're looking at now is so much larger than it was during the recession.”

In the face of inaction by the federal government, states and cities, like Chicago, are trying to step up and fill the void. Despite the inadequacy of city budgets to meet this moment, this effort marks a serious departure. Before the pandemic, few cities had any form of assistance for renters (unless they were already homeless). Chicago stood out for providing a municipal voucher programme, while Philadelphia only announced such a policy at the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic struck. 

These new efforts are profoundly limited by their budgets, which even in the best of times cannot stretch to cover the great majority of low-income residents. Now as municipalities face a hideous season of austerity, thanks to plummeting local revenues and spiking service costs, their abilities will be hampered even further. (Assistance for states and localities is also held up in Congress, where Republicans have been hesitant to offer help.)

 “Given the way that they're hemorrhaging money, the amount of money that cities and even states can come up with is by definition going to be far too little to address this issue,” says Mallach. 

In Chicago, meanwhile, the Department of Housing has been able to scrounge up more money for its flexible rent assistance programme. In June, the mayor and the Board of Alders – Chicago’s version of City Council – agreed to allocate another $20 million in funding, bolstered by federal dollars this time. The size of the grants will be increased beyond the original $1,000 to cope with the extended number of months that many people will not have been able to pay their rent. The goal this time is to reach at least another 7,000 families.

Tens of thousands more will probably still be left out.  

“If we don't do more, then we run the risk of having either massive evictions or landlords unable to pay their bills and mass property tax foreclosure,” says Mallach. “The whole vicious cycle. If it's going to be solved, it's going to require a federal solution.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.