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White House Summit Will Highlight Assistance Programs Available To Renters, Landlords

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic created all this economic instability, and that has made things very hard on people trying to pay their rent. Last September, the CDC issued a moratorium on evictions to protect these people. It was recently extended until the end of July, and yesterday, the Supreme Court kept it in place. But come August, it is over. Today, the White House is hosting a summit to highlight available assistance for both renters and landlords.

Gene Sperling is a senior adviser to the president and the coordinator of the American Rescue Plan, and he joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

GENE SPERLING: Well, thank you, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So people who haven't been able to pay their rent during the pandemic have gotten this months - many-months-long reprieve. What happens to them after the eviction moratorium ends?

SPERLING: Well, Rachel, we're dealing with the fact that our nation, even before the pandemic, has never had a national infrastructure policy to prevent unnecessary evictions. We - before the pandemic, we averaged (ph) 3.6 million evictions a year, many unnecessary, many where people just owed $500 or $600. So the eviction moratorium really stepped in. It's estimated to have prevented about 2.2 million evictions. Now what we really need as eviction moratorium comes to an end is that - Congress gave significant money through the Emergency Rental Assistance, but most states and localities don't have wide programs. We're now in the race, and we're pushing them to step up those efforts immediately. And some, like Harris County in Texas, are really ramping up, but others are lagging.

MARTIN: OK.

SPERLING: So - but one of the things, Rachel, that we're talking about this morning is that there are localities that do what's called anti-eviction diversionary policies. That sounds complicated, but it's pretty simple. It's that you don't just let somebody come in with an eviction notice. You make it the last choice, not the first choice. You force people to a form of mediation. And this really could work. It works around the country in places like Philadelphia. So what did the White House do - we - first administration do? The Department of Justice has put out a powerful letter to judges around the country saying, please use these anti-eviction diversionary strategies.

MARTIN: OK.

SPERLING: Give the mediation a chance. Because with $46 billion of funding, if you can reach people and get them to talk to each other, landlords could be made whole. They could get all of their...

MARTIN: Right.

SPERLING: ...Back rent paid.

MARTIN: Let...

SPERLING: It could keep more people in the homes. But, yes, we've got to stand up these programs (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Let me get in here and ask about that aid. And I understand. You're - the plan now is to kind of pressure states, encourage states to reform the rules around eviction in their individual localities. But I need to ask about this $46 billion you referenced. This was for Emergency Rental Assistance. According to our reporting, much of that money that was approved by Congress has been slow to get to those who need it. As of last week, some states had distributed less than 5% of that money. Even the most successful state, Texas, had distributed less than 40%. What's the holdup?

SPERLING: It's really what I said at the beginning. This is not just about appropriating money. This is about getting in state and local governments new policies, new programs that do something our country hasn't done - provide funds to help people actually get eviction protection. That means actually working with landlords, working with tenants. So...

MARTIN: I understand those are the next steps, but this particular tranche of money...

SPERLING: No, these are...

MARTIN: Why is that not getting to people who need it?

SPERLING: No - I'm - yeah. No, I'm trying to explain. We - at the Biden administration, we have got the money out the door. The question is - the way this program was set up, it has to be administered at state and local government levels, many of whom, or most of whom, have never set up these type of programs before. So as they set up, they're going to start ramping up and hitting larger and larger numbers. But as you're implying, Rachel, it's kind of a race because the eviction moratorium is ending. And what we're doing is really doing everything we can to push, prod and fund those state and local governments to get those programs up quicker and quicker so when the eviction moratorium ends, we don't face a wave of new evictions.

So one of the things to do is stop - you know, the moratorium kind of halted people just going to evictions. When that happens, you want to have these diversionary policies, which is just saying that courts should say, before somebody comes to eviction - comes to try to get eviction, they first have to show they sat down with their landlord with a program to take the back rent so they're made whole, but then they could also keep those tenants in their homes, prevent homelessness, housing instability. What the White House summit is about today is bringing 50 cities together to try to help them hurry up, empower and fund their efforts to help divert evictions into new, better solutions that would - by using this $46 billion in funding...

MARTIN: OK.

SPERLING: ...That came through the American Rescue Plan.

MARTIN: Gene Sperling is a senior adviser to the president and the coordinator of the American Rescue Plan. We appreciate your context and perspective on this. Thank you.

SPERLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.