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Emergency rental assistance outreach

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This brief was written as part of our COVID-19 Housing Response plans series. Added: November 30, 2020.

What are existing local resources and strategies that emergency rental assistance programs may be able to leverage?

As local, state, and federal eviction moratoria are set to expire early next year, emergency rental assistance has played an increasingly critical role in helping renters remain housing-secure and avoid evictions. However, local housing leaders have faced difficulties publicizing these new programs, stemming from reduced staff capacity, limited funds to conduct robust communications and outreach campaigns, the inherent challenges of reaching at-risk populations. Effective and targeted communication and outreach efforts are essential to ensure that those most in need of a program apply for assistance and receive it. Without such efforts, awareness of rental assistance programs may be low to nonexistent in communities of greatest need – resulting in low application rates and increases the possibility for widespread evictions once moratoria expire.

Local leaders need not struggle to conduct program outreach on their own. Localities may already have the resources, assets, partners, and experience they need, either within their own departments, other departments, or in their communities. In this brief, we highlight some ways that local leaders can identify and utilize the resources and expertise within their local government’s network to improve the communications and outreach of emergency rental assistance programs.[1] By providing a variety of examples and actionable recommendations, we hope local leaders can use this information to spark ideas, increase inter-agency collaboration, and enhance the impact of these critically needed programs.

The value of a collaborative approach

Rental assistance programs can benefit from the learning, resources, and networks of a range of city agencies and departments. Representatives from different departments and agencies may be able to identify underused resources and opportunities, leverage past experiences with similar programs, and even directly provide capacity to improve communications and outreach efforts.

Approach

To identify promising strategies for conducting outreach to potential beneficiaries of local rental assistance programs, program administrators should start with previous or existing  programs to ensure housing stability for low-income households. Emergency rental assistance coordinators can benefit from learning about the successful strategies and resources these past efforts used in their communications and outreach. It may even be possible for rental assistance programs to take advantage of these established programs’ resources and efforts at little or no additional cost. Even if the opportunity to directly join existing outreach is not available, debriefing with managers of similar programs can help rental assistance program coordinators identify strategies that have proven effective at engaging the program’s target populations.

To identify and put the tools and strategies outlined here to use, rental assistance program teams may wish to:

  • Scan current and previous City/County programs with similar missions (i.e. eviction prevention or increasing housing stability) or that are targeted to the same constituencies (i.e. low-income renter households). This can be done by asking colleagues or reviewing the City/County website, press releases, and internal informational resources.
  • Once relevant programs are identified, reach out to relevant departmental and program leads; conduct peer sharing on strategies and tools deployedopportunities to share/leverage existing tools, best practices, and lessons learned. A non-exhaustive list of questions to ask include:
    • What kind of information does this community need in order to apply?
    • What resources or methods are most efficient and effective at reaching this community?
    • What  resources or methods will provide the information this community needs to incite them to apply?
    • What additional efforts and resources are necessary to adapt these responses to the needs of non-English speaking communities or persons with disabilities?
    • Are any of these resources or methods available within City Hall and can be used to support outreach efforts?
    • See examples below for ideas on possible resources and opportunities for collaboration.
  • Where possible, co-deploy or otherwise leverage these existing program tools to save money and enhance effectiveness by using strategies that other City/County programs have found to be effective.
  • Record strategies and assets used in your program for future de-siloing and sharing efforts between programs.

Examples

The following are examples of resources and outreach efforts that may be available through other local departments or agencies that can promote emergency rental assistance and other COVID relief programs:

Resource Department(s) or Office(s) to Contact Recommendation Example in action
City COVID-19 Response Websites IT, Communications Highlight up-to-date program information, including the status of application acceptances, wait list, upcoming events, etc., on any City COVID information and resource web pages. Sacramento (CA) has a comprehensive COVID-19 response website, including information on resources for businesses, individuals, and workers; and related to health needs, financial assistance, and community resources. Information on Sacramento’s rental assistance program is prominently displayed at the top of the page.
Community Based Partners All Different City agencies and departments may have rich networks of community-based partner organizations. Use these networks, particularly ones  that serve similar populations, and see if there are any opportunities to promote rental assistance programs. When Chicago (IL) was designing its rental assistance program, city staff members from multiple departments reached out to their community organization network. Individual organizations  were recruited to assist with marketing, outreach, intake, etc., specifically reaching hard-to-reach communities.
City/County Executive Communications Office of the Mayor/City Manager/County Executive, Communications Request that local leaders (e.g., Mayor, City Manager, Council members, County Executive) mention rental assistance (e.g., cite program phone number or webpage for residents to obtain additional information/to sign up) as a regular component of their addresses and communications. In Houston (TX), Mayor Turner encouraged residents to apply for the City’s rental assistance for Houston’s low-to-moderate income residents.
Text Messaging Platforms Emergency Services, Census campaign Explore whether other offices may already have text messaging platforms, such as an emergency text messaging system, and/or pre-purchased leads/numbers that a rental assistance program can deploy. In Philadelphia (PA), the City used its opt-in emergency management texting system, ReadyPhiladelphia,  to text residents about its rental assistance program.
Informational Hold Messages IT, Communications Implement automated messages about the rental assistance program that callers will hear when contacting and/or on hold for City or County services. While not COVID-related, Contra Costa County (CA) created scripts on the importance of completing the census for County departments to implement during the self-response period. These efforts could easily be adapted to promote emergency rental assistance.
City/County community service venues DMV, Municipal/ County Court, community/ recreation centers, public libraries, workforce development centers Where there are City/County venues or services that residents are accessing during COVID, particularly where they may be waiting in line, e.g. the DMV or municipal court, make rental assistance program information clearly visible. If possible, have team members provide information and answer questions as people wait for services. In Ramsey County (MN), emergency rental assistance program staff set up a table within their housing courts to enroll tenants facing evictions.
Resource and service provision programs Human Services, Economic/Community Development Leverage events distributing food assistance, PPE, etc. to raise awareness about rental assistance. Put informational materials in food bags and at food distribution venues. Where permissible under local COVID-19 health guidance, have team members set up a table to provide information and/or assist with program signup at these events. The city of Ridgefield (CT) has been using the town’s Rec Center to conduct widespread COVID testing. At the Center, residents can also receive information on the city’s various assistance programs.
Government- Access and Community TV (GATV) Television, Media, Communications Create a public service announcement and/or one-pager/slide explainer on the rental assistance and eviction prevention programs to feature on GATV. Be sure to include the program’s web address and contact information. Fayetteville (NC) uses a dedicated feed of its FayTV station to provide information on COVID-19 and related information and resources.

Considerations

We recognize that local rental assistance programs and outreach efforts face a host of challenges and constraints during these unprecedented times, including budget cuts, public health concerns, federal funding deadlines, state or federal-level regulatory hurdles, political considerations, and more. These challenges may present significant hurdles to a department’s ability to carry forward the recommendations set forth in this brief. The ideas and recommendations outlined do not purport to be able to address every such challenge that a rental assistance program may be grappling with. However, pursuing targeted discussions with other departments about the outreach strategies and tools that they have used, that may be available for rental assistance programs to draw upon, may mitigate some of these constraints. Moreover, when faced with constraints, such as limited time to deploy a certain funding stream like Coronavirus Relief Funds, cities hoping to maximize the utility of those resources should prioritize looking at what has worked for other City/County service programs – particularly those that have connected with residents who may now be at high risk of housing instability, and in need of rental assistance.

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