Indiana’s Emergency Rental Assistance: Program Outlines and Recommendations for Equitable Outcomes
By Natalie James & Michaela Wischmeier
In 2020, Indiana had two COVID-related emergency rental assistance programs, one statewide program that served 91 of the state’s 92 counties and another program that served only Marion County. Though they aided 27,314 households with both Coronavirus (CRF) and Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funds, in addition to 15,835 through Marion County’s program, these initial programs did not fully meet Indiana’s need for emergency rental assistance. Now utilizing the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, seven COVID-related Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs have launched across Indiana, including six local programs and one statewide program that serves Hoosiers not covered by the local programs.
All state and local ERA programs must follow federal guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury Department, but have flexibility in other program design and delivery elements. The six local ERA programs (counties and cities) all require eligible applicants to be residents of the city or county and living in a rental housing unit. All program applicants must qualify for unemployment or have experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19 since April 1, 2020, to apply. Each ERA program also requires applicants to have a household income at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI) with charts of income breakdowns provided on each program’s website. The programs vary on the length and amount of assistance being provided to approved applicants. Additionally, all of the programs assist with both rent and utilities, except for Marion County, which only provides rental assistance. Allowances for arrears (past-due payments) and future payments are specific to each program.
The following information highlights the major differences in application requirements or assistance amongst the programs. Additionally, recommendations on maximizing the equity and efficiency of emergency rental assistance programs are provided as a framework for ERA programs for Hoosiers.
Indiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program (IERA) – Statewide: The state program, through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA), is designed to assist households that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible renter households can receive up to 12 months of assistance. The person completing the application will be considered the head of household, and assistance limits are based on the size of the rental. IHCDA’s program will cover all areas in the state that do not have a local government receiving separate ARPA funds to distribute rental assistance.
Elkhart County: The Elkhart County Emergency Rental Assistance Program provides up to six months of rent, utilities, and internet assistance. Residents of Elkhart County may apply for help paying for utilities, even if they do not need assistance with rent. Additionally, utilities and home energy costs that are covered by the landlord will be treated as rent.
Hamilton County: The Emergency Rental Assistance Program in Hamilton County is providing utility and rental assistance. Current rent and utility (electricity, gas, water, sewer, trash removal, propane, and some internet costs) assistance will only be provided after all arrears are paid. The program is prioritizing assistance for households in active eviction status, with income at or below 50 percent of the AMI, with an individual who has been unemployed for the past 90 days prior to the application, or with past-due rent (arrears) owed. The Hamilton County program does not indicate a maximum number of months of assistance provided, but does cap the total amount of assistance, based on household income.
Lake County: The Lake County Emergency Rental Assistance (LCERA) program is providing up to 12 months of rent, utility, home energy, and internet assistance for eligible households. Applicants must meet the following criteria and cannot receive rental or utility assistance that duplicates the assistance sought from the LCERA.
Marion County: The Marion County program includes assistance for Indianapolis residents. The program, IndyRent, provides up to three months of payments or arrears, including late fees accrued after April 1, 2020. The maximum amount of monthly assistance cannot exceed the fair market for rentals. Priority is given to households below 50% AMI or who have been unemployed for 90 days or longer at the time of application.
St. Joseph County: St. Joseph County is providing up to 12 months of assistance, including arrears and future rent payments. An applicant can apply for up to three months of future rent with each application and will be required to submit a reapplication form for additional assistance.
City of Fort Wayne: Fort Wayne’s Emergency Rental Assistance program provides up to three months of ongoing rental payments. The total of past due rent and future rental payments generally may not exceed 12 months; in limited cases, up to 15 months of assistance may be approved. Utility assistance is also included for up to 12 months of past due bills. Similar to rental assistance, in limited cases, up to 15 months of utility assistance may be approved.
Recently, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) released a research brief detailing six recommendations for administering an effective emergency rental assistance program that prioritizes those who are most vulnerable. These recommendations can help Indiana’s state and local ERA programs target the communities and populations most in need of assistance, tailor outreach and support through community partnerships, and ensure equitable outcomes through program monitoring and evaluation.
1) Determine Priority Populations
According to the report, the first recommendation for administering an effective rental assistance program is through determining priority populations. The report suggests that program administrators begin by centering racial equity in the participatory process by using the following resources: Advancing Racial Equity in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, The Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Response, Timeline of 100 Years of Racist Housing Policy, Mapping Inequality – Redlining in New Deal America, Segregated by Design, and the 4th World Movement Guidelines. In addition to centering racial equity, program administrators should also prioritize by income using the 50% AMI and 90 days unemployed recommendations from Treasury in addition to targeting those spending more than 50% of their income on housing. Program administrators should also prioritize by using other housing-related factors drawn from COVID-19 from sources such as the American Community Survey, Eviction Lab Map & Data, CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, and The Urban Institute’s Emergency Rental Priority Index. Finally, programs should also take into consideration eligibility criteria and documentation requirements such as: reducing documentation requirements so as to allow program administrators to serve more households; understanding that asking for Social Security numbers is a barrier for those who are undocumented; and that requiring source of income documentation is a barrier for those who are unemployed, pay rent in cash, or are unbanked.
2) Budget Effectively while Setting Benchmarks
A second method for delivering effective programs is to budget effectively while setting benchmarks. Program administrators should set goals and establish standards for accountability. In addition, they should budget funds to ensure administrative capacity to review and process applications, maintain consistent communication with tenants and landlords, support people struggling with the application process, secure infrastructure and technology to support application review and processing workflows for staff and provide user-friendly online portals for tenants and landlords, have adequate funding to partner with and increase the capacity of community groups administering the program, build capacity to solicit feedback from key stakeholders with appropriate compensation for people with lived experiences, and perform program evaluation.
3) Conduct Robust Tenant and Landlord Outreach
The third recommendation for administering an effective rental assistance program is to conduct robust tenant and landlord outreach by partnering with and investing in community groups, leveraging existing tenant referral systems using programs like Continuum of Care, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid and other programs, employing non-digital outreach strategies for tenants; and engaging landlords through education and negotiation.
4) Provide Ample Intake Support for Tenants and Landlords
Further guidance for administering an effective rental assistance program includes providing ample intake support for tenants and landlords by using various methods (online, in-person, and over the phone), leveraging community-based partnerships, reducing language barriers to completing the application, and reducing technological barriers to completing the application.
5) Select Applicants and Provide Services Adequately
An additional directive for emergency rental assistance program effectiveness is selecting applicants and providing services adequately. This includes selecting applicants using equity-based strategies (points-based system, shortlisted first-come-first-served, and weighted Lottery) in addition to varying the duration of assistance based on need.
6) Monitor and Evaluate the Program Effectively
The final recommendation for emergency rental assistance programs is to monitor and evaluate the program effectively by conducting a real-time evaluation of progress, making corrections as needed, and conducting retrospective analysis to inform future programming.
A large gap remains between the number of families needing rental assistance and those who have been served by the seven existing programs throughout the state to date. In addition, the large gap in housing-related COVID-19 data available in Indiana could be closed by good tracking around Indiana’s Emergency Rental Assistance programs. Being intentional about ERA program administration is essential, not just for COVID-19 recovery, but for the long-term success of Indiana’s most vulnerable renter households.