The ‘Broadband Gap’ Is Now a Housing Problem

By Sidney Fussell

A national moratorium on evictions expired in late August, after the US Supreme Court blocked a Biden administration bid to extend it. Many feared a drastic upswing in evictions, but instead filings rose less than 9 percent from August to September, according to the Eviction Lab, a research initiative at Princeton University tracking eviction filings across six states and 31 cities.

State and federal rental assistance programs helped prevent a large number of evictions, experts say, but many people still struggle to access help. Housing assistance programs shifted online during the pandemic, leaving behind many without broadband access. End-of-year deadlines loom for renters who need to claim housing relief before states, many with millions in undistributed funds, lose access to them. Meanwhile, housing advocates say a “tangled web” of difficult-to-navigate programs keeps many from getting help.

Kathryn Howell, codirector of the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the sudden shift to an online system hurt people without speedy internet access. As she explains, rental assistance programs have long involved a series of in-person interviews, beginning with an eviction notice and continuing as the person works with state agencies, nonprofits, the property owner, and others.

In rural southwest Virginia, where broadband is sketchy, “there's real trouble making connections for tenants and for landlords,” she says. “I think that a lot of folks haven't quite been able to switch their heads around to this next model.”

Covid-era rent relief programs require information from state agencies, the renter, and the building owner, with both renters and landlords complaining it’s been difficult to navigate. Howell says that while rent relief was essential to keeping renters in their homes, the surprisingly low eviction numbers mask disparities and many states have disbursed little of their available funds. The ​​National Low Income Housing Coalition, a DC-based nonprofit, tracks each state’s rent relief spending. Virginia has spent roughly 60 percent of its funds, while Kentucky has spent less than 30 percent and Mississippi only 10 percent.

“You have some landlords who aren't particularly savvy or particularly motivated,” Howell says, “because they've been able to evict without too much trouble for so long, and so [from their perspective] why is now any different for them, right?”

Advocates are also concerned that some landlords are turning to “delinquency management platforms” to track renters who’ve fallen behind on their payments, regardless of whether they’ve applied for assistance.

As a result, some communities are in dire straits, while others have seen eviction levels drop below pre-pandemic averages. In Arkansas, for example, 25 percent of renters are behind on rent, while the state has distributed only 5 percent of its relief funds, according to an analysis by Axios. In Stanislaus County, near San Francisco, only 5 percent of renters who applied for housing assistance were approved, with many denied because of errors filling out the application.

Even for those with access, navigating the many assistance programs, housing authorities, and applications isn’t easy. Ehren Dohler, who researches housing insecurity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, has tried to track what he’s called the “tangled web” of housing assistance programs. As he explains, such assistance has traditionally gone through local housing authorities, but some metropolitan areas have dozens. Boston, for example, has 94. As Dohler explains, they don't usually share information with each other, meaning applicants must endure long waits and risk starting over should they seek help from one and then have to move to another. Efforts to simplify and standardize the process have stalled.