We don’t know enough to help you.

We don’t know how many people have received eviction notices since the moratorium expired this weekend.

We will never know how many people have been informally evicted – people who have left their homes quickly for fear of being asked to pay for what they don’t have, or people who have faced lockdowns – out or intimidation from their owners.

We don’t even really know how many tenants were actually threatened with eviction or which landlords are on the verge of financial ruin over the past year.

Congress has set aside around $ 45 billion to ensure that a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of millions of people does not force families to leave their homes through no fault of their own. It was not a band-aid or a short-term measure. Experts, tenant advocates and even landlords have agreed: It was the solution. Money itemized explicitly for the purpose of helping people pay rent. More than half was allocated under the Trump administration and the rest under President Joe Biden.

And yet, at the end of June, the most recent data the Treasury Department made available shows that only about 6.5% of that money is coming out. It is not for lack of trying. But we’ve made it possible for low-income tenants to exist on the outskirts of society and our safety nets, to the point that reaching them, even when there is aids available, becomes a massive, expensive and often impossible undertaking. .

“One of the things that this pandemic has made very clear is that there are a lot of things we don’t know about our housing market,” Vincent Reina, director of the housing market, told me in May. Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. “The vast majority of cities don’t have complete records of every owner in their city. … This shows that we often don’t know who owns properties and what is happening with those properties or which tenants are in financial difficulty.

When Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond published his book Forced out in 2016, it was a shocking portrayal of how the government let down very low income tenants. He launched the Eviction Lab two years later to create America’s first-ever national database of evictions, writing:

Imagine if we didn’t know how many Americans were incarcerated each year or how many dropped out of high school, got divorced, or lost their jobs. If we don’t know how much of a problem something is, where it’s happening, or how many families are affected by it, then how do we begin the critical work of finding solutions?

We monitor in real time what happens when we don’t know enough about tenants facing eviction. It’s time for a federal rental registry.

What is measured is managed

The failure of rent relief to reach tenants before the moratorium on evictions expired did not surprise experts or tenant advocates. For the better half of the year, many warned that rent relief dollars were not reaching tenants at risk. There were many reasons for this, but the main two were that a) many tenants did not even know that help was available to them and b) the obstacles to proving that you needed it are so heavy that many are unable to provide you with the necessary documentation.

Rental records can help solve this problem.

A rental registry requires owners to register their property with a government agency and submit key information such as the property’s address and owner’s contact details. But it would not be difficult to also require landlords to provide more detailed information such as the number of tenants they are renting to, the number of units in each property, and the amount they charge for rent.

These registers could also be used to ensure direct communication with landlords about tenant rights and fair housing law, as well as a distinction between low income tenants and government services they may not be aware of. that they are there to help them. In other words, if we had already had a registry, the state and local agencies administering rent relief could have used the information it contains to contact all tenants within their borders and inform about available funds.

As Shane Phillips, head of the Randall Lewis Housing Initiative at UCLA in Shelterforce, argued, tenants should be allowed to “create their own account linked to their home … and have access to information provided by their landlords.” … Allowing tenant registration would verify complaints made by landlord regarding rent, lease terms, etc., and this would give tenants a direct line to the local housing agency, and the agency housing a direct line with tenants.

Additionally, having all of this information in a ledger would allow the government to quickly verify that someone is a tenant in need of assistance instead of requiring tenants to provide documents in an emergency. . In many places, checking that you are a tenant at a particular address and your current lease agreement causes delays; a rental register might have this information readily available.

The case of a federal rent register

It would be a great undertaking for the federal government to start collecting all of this information. And again, it would be worth it.

A handful of cities – Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Seattle, to name a few – currently have very simple forms of rental records. While having local or state-level registers may be easier, and much better than doing nothing, the patchwork of unemployment insurance systems that states have enacted shows the problems associated with the fracture of these types of social safety nets along state borders. And in future crises, it is the federal government that will be able to adopt large tax packages because of its ability to borrow. Having this information available at this level to provide direct support instead of having hundreds of different rent relief programs at the local level seems far superior.

Localities, of course, should have access to this information to keep in regular contact with tenants and landlords. But it’s important to keep this information standardized across the country. It allows states to compare between cities and allows the government to compare states and determine where help is needed.

“Cities have developed local owner registers, but even these are often incomplete and out of date…” Over time there have been calls for national efforts to try to create better national owner registry systems and local, and if there was ever a time when it was clearly needed, it’s now. “

Certainly, some people would still fall through the cracks; our experiences with stimulus controls have taught us that. While stimulus checks quickly reached the vast majority of Americans (nearly 80% of the second set of checks were sent in the first three days, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget), some of the most the poor who do not report taxes or the homeless have waited months to receive their stimulus check. Some may never receive their checks.

Yet a system where we could reach 80 percent of the people in need, and then focus our resources on the remaining 20 percent, is significantly better than a system where it takes six months to get even a billion or two.

Some have raised privacy concerns with this type of recording, but most, if not all, of this information is already held by the government, it just isn’t put together in one place. The federal government taxes rental income, which means landlords must already say how much rent they are making on their properties. Localities and states charge property taxes, which means who owns what property and how much it is assessed is already registered. And when you pay your taxes every year, you are already telling the government where you live.

Also, I don’t remember anyone complaining about privacy when we deposited our stimulus checks into our bank accounts courtesy of Uncle Sam.

This won’t be the last time that targeted tenant support will be needed: the median tenant is not well positioned to weather the next recession. According to Brookings, “The median income for renters was $ 42,479 in 2019, about half that of homeowners. Over 40% of renter households earn less than $ 35,000 per year. And data from the 2017 census shows that “the median wealth of homeowners was almost 89 times greater than the median wealth of renters and not entirely because of home equity.”

It took six days from when Biden signed the $ 1.9 trillion relief package until I received $ 1,400 deposited into my checking account. I was not concerned about privacy and no one bothered me to verify that I “really needed help”.

That same package contained $ 25 billion for rent relief, but 145 days later, the vast majority are still waiting to be spent.