Billions in rent aid is available. Here’s how to get it.

With evictions again on hold in most U.S. counties, tenants now have until October 3 to get government help paying their rent. The additional 60 days could prove vital given that barely 10% of the $46 billion in emergency federal relief specifically awarded for that purpose had been distributed as of July, with estimates showing that more than half of renters and many landlords across the country are even unaware that aid is available.

“The good news is there are sufficient resources to help all tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told CBSN this week. “The problem is money is not getting out fast enough.”

While the individual steps people must take and required documentation varies depending on where they live, here are some key tips from housing advocates on how to get rental assistance.

First step: Act fast

While the government’s new eviction moratorium has given renters some breathing room, it’s still important to apply for a program as soon as possible. 

“If you haven’t applied yet, you should immediately because it may take time to get that money to you,” Yentel said.

Even if the money takes months to arrive, submitting a rent aid application aid is a critical first step for renters who might be facing eviction. That’s because in many states, including California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Oregon, you are protected from being evicted while your application is being processed. 

So even if renters are ultimately turned down for funds, they might at least gain a few more months to search for a new place, just by applying for government assistance. 

Find out if you qualify

According to the Department of Treasury’s guidance, eligible households must meet three general qualifications: They’ve lost money because of COVID-19 or its economic fallout; they’re a low- or middle-income household (earning no more than 80% of area median income and often much less); and they’ll have trouble finding a new place to live.

In short, showing financial hardship is key. Applicants need not necessarily have fallen ill from the coronavirus, but they must have lost income due to business closures, lockdowns, layoffs or an illness in the family related to COVID-19.

Beyond that, specifics will depend on where you live and the program you apply to. Also, some programs will prioritize tenants based on how dire their situation is: Those who are facing eviction, are elderly or earn a very low income could get moved to the front of the line.

Find the right program

For renters, figuring out where exactly to apply to can be the biggest hurdle. There are now more than 450 city, county, state and tribal rent aid programs in the U.S. — each with different requirements. 

In most cases, renters should go to the most local program they can find. Use an online lookup tool, such as consumerfinance.gov/renthelp or the Treasury Department’s website, to enter your address and find a program near you. If there isn’t a local program serving your area, check out what your state offers.

Renters can also call a hotline to find out which program to apply to as well as get connected to a local nonprofit that will help them fill out the application. Here are rent-assistance hotlines for the biggest states:

Gather your documents

Once you’ve made an appointment or started an online application for rent aid, gather all the documents you might need. Having everything in one place could save hours of work and untold amounts of stress.

“The most common thing that makes the application difficult or not able to happen that day is folks who don’t have all their documents together,” said Jordan Dewbre, a staff attorney with BronxWorks, a nonprofit assisting Bronx residents in New York City apply for aid. “They may not know they need information for everybody’s income .… Maybe they haven’t had the awkward conversation with their roommate, which is, ‘How much money did you make last month?'”

Find out what is required from your local or state program. If you don’t have a specific document, ask what you can provide as a substitute.

Generally, applicants will be asked to prove their identity, their place of residence and their financial hardship from COVID-19. That typically requires the following documents from everyone in a household:

  • Identification
  • Proof of income 
  • Social Security number (for some programs)
  • Proof of residence, such as a lease or utility bill
  • Proof of how much back rent you owe, such as a letter from your landlord or statement from your management company or utility

Coming up with those last two documents has been a struggle for many tenants, noted Lakisha Morris, who administers the Emergency Rental Assistance Program for Catholic Charities in parts of New York City.

“The moratorium has been in place and no one has been asking for this,” she said. “You cannot apply if you can’t prove that you have arrears.”

Lacking documentation won’t automatically sink your application, but you may have to get creative. Some programs allow applicants who don’t have paystubs to write a letter documenting their income loss. In other cases, such as tenants who don’t have a formal lease, bank statements may be used to verify rent payments prior to the pandemic. 

However, the more documentation you can provide, the better your chances of getting aid.

Housing advocate on eviction ban 03:11

Learn where your landlord stands

Not all programs require landlords to be on board in order for renters to get help. The most recent round of funding from Congress allows rent-assistance programs to give money directly to tenants if their landlord is uncooperative. 

“When the programs first rolled out, you needed landlord buy-in in order to get any assistance,” said Jeffrey Uno, managing attorney of the Eviction Defense Center at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “They’ve moved away from it, thankfully, because they found many of the landlords don’t want to participate — they just want the person out. Now some programs will provide money directly to the tenants.” 

Still, if you can get your landlord on board, you’ll have a much easier time applying for assistance. That’s because landlords have access to documentation, such as a lease or proof of rent arrears, which are essential in applying for assistance. Meanwhile, many programs are reluctant to give money directly to renters even though that is within the rules.

“On the New York side, there’s a strong emphasis on both landlords and tenants participating. If either of them doesn’t participate, it doesn’t happen,” said Dewbre of BronxWorks.

Housing experts recommend that renters talk to their landlord if they can. Most community groups assisting with program applications will work with landlords as well as tenants, and most programs will allow either party to start the application process.

Keep receipts and check your email

Once you submit an application for rent aid, document it. Take a screenshot or even a photo of the confirmation page on an online application, and save any emails confirming your application status. Keep the application reference number on hand in case you want to follow up later with a call to check on its status. 

Stay vigilant. Answer your phone and check your email — even the spam folder. Cases have surfaced of renters left in the dark because rent application emails went straight to their junk mail, City Limits reported last month. 

“The biggest hurdle is people not checking emails or not checking phone calls,” said Meghan Heddings, executive director of Family Housing Resources in Tucson, Arizona. “There’s a lot of folks that we really struggle to keep in correspondence with.”

Once you’ve applied for rental assistance, it can take weeks or months for your application to be processed. Housing advocates advise tenants to be patient but to check in periodically, as they might find out they’re missing a document or need something else to move the application along.

“Follow up with the applications — make sure you’re contacting the social worker that’s assisting you, answering calls, checking those emails,” Uno said.

“It’s really easy to say ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and you’re discouraged,” he continued. “I would really stress to folks to just apply and be diligent — keep your eyes on the ball and don’t give up. It does happen — people do get the assistance.”