Latest COVID-19 relief bill provides help for those experiencing homelessness or struggling to pay rent

People start to arrive at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 28. Carpets were originally put down on the parking lot, but were later removed for sanitary reasons, leaving people to sleep on pavement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Louisiana is set to receive about an additional $244 million in rental assistance and over $70 million in homeless assistance from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package President Biden signed into law last week. That funding should help many Louisianians stay in their home, “but only if it is efficiently and equitably administered at the state and local level,” the head of Louisiana’s Fair Housing Action Center said.

Cashauna Hill, executive director of the center, said in January that the state’s previous rental assistance programs had required renters to jump through bureaucratic hoops, which was unreasonable, she said, for renters with the threat of eviction looming over their heads. But this time, she said, “Congress created this new program to be flexible and meet the needs of households in crisis who don’t have time to find and upload reams of documentation paperwork.” Hill called that “a big improvement.”

On March 5, Gov. John Bel Edwards launched a new housing assistance program, funded by the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress at the end of 2020, that allocated $309 million to struggling renters and landlords in Louisiana. Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, said she didn’t believe $309 million would be enough to meet rental assistance needs statewide because “we’ve seen so many people and now we’re months and months and months into this and their (back rents) are huge.”

Rachal said the American Rescue Plan Act will almost double the amount of statewide rental assistance funds, but it’s too soon to tell if it will be enough to cover every struggling Louisiana renter and landlords’ needs.

Hill said she is still seeing missteps in current rental assistance programs, such as not offering the application in Spanish, allowing “landlords to accept thousands in public assistance and then turn around and evict tenants without a violation” and overburdensome document requirements.

“These are serious missteps that will slow down the program and result in more evictions and COVID-19 deaths, just as we can finally start to see an end to this crisis,” Hill said.

According to a summary from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, households are eligible for emergency rental assistance if they:

  • have qualified for unemployment benefits or experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs or experienced other financial hardship during or due, directly or indirectly to the pandemic
  • can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability
  • has a household income below 80% AMI (area median income)

State and local governments also “must prioritize households below 50 percent of AMI or those who are unemployed and have been unemployed for 90-days,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Louisiana will also receive grants of about $40 million to the state and $30 million to municipalities targeted specifically for the homeless population. Funding for housing vouchers — a federal housing program “for assisting very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled” — are included in the homeless assistance grants, which Rachal said could stabilize family homelessness rates in the state.

“But it will depend on how that’s implemented” at the local level” and “which households receive priority status,” she said. Rachal said she hopes households that have lost their homes are prioritized for housing vouchers over households that may have had to double or triple up in homes with their friends or family.

According to the the National Low Income Housing Coalition, households are eligible for homeless assistance if they: 

  • are or are at risk of experiencing homelessness
  • are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, or human trafficking 
  • have supportive services would prevent the family’s homelessness or having a high risk of housing instability
  • have a veteran family member that meets one of these criteria

A spokesperson from the Louisiana Housing Corporation did not respond to a message asking when statewide programs for rental and homeless assistance provided by the American Rescue Plan Act will begin.