Papering Your Way to Housing

Maryellen Hess Cameron

Maryellen Hess Cameron spent over 25 years as the Executive Director of non-profit agencies in the social....

Emergency assistance to help people with unpaid rent and utilities is on its way; this article reviews how you can help clients gather information for their applications. 

There’s nothing like a government program to generate paperwork. Ironically, since the Paperwork Reduction Act passed 40 years ago the documentation needed for housing assistance programs seems to increase regularly. And there’s no getting out of it. Housing agencies must collect all of this information as a condition of their grants.  

This burden rolls downhill. The good news is that you and your client can gather this documentation in advance and create a “housing portfolio” to simplify the application process.  You may have to apply for housing at multiple organizations. Having a portfolio will prevent many headaches for you, your clients and housing providers. 

Casebook has functions to track information your client needs in their housing portfolio, as I will describe later in this post. 

Billions in Emergency Assistance are Pending

The American Rescue Plan of 2021 (Plan) added billions of dollars in rental assistance. Most of it is temporary to help people pay off rent arrearages and stabilize their housing. 

  • Emergency rental assistance: $21.5 billion to help households remain in their homes. 
  • Emergency housing vouchers: $5 billion for people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of it. 
  • Homelessness assistance and supportive services: $5 billion to create new housing and services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. 
  • Housing assistance for Native Americans and Native Hawaiians: $750 million to reduce housing-related health risks 
  • Emergency assistance for rural housing:$100 million to help people in rural communities keep their homes during the pandemic.

That adds up to $32 billion dollars, on top of rental assistance funds included in the December 2020 CARES act. 

That is a lot of money. But it has to go a very long way. At the end of February 2021 over 13.5 million people said they were behind on their rent -- nearly 1 in 5 of all renters -- according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis . Renters owe an estimated $57 billion in back rent. 

These numbers show the need is greater than the emergency help available. Your clients need to apply for the money early to get what they need. If you have the documents in hand your client can start applications as soon as housing agencies can accept them.

The rules and regulations governing these programs were not yet issued at the time of this writing. This article reviews typical documents clients will need to provide, based on my 16 years of experience leading an affordable housing agency. They were created for permanent affordable housing such as Housing Choice Vouchers, meaning your client’s housing portfolio is valuable long after the Plan funding is exhausted. For now, it is likely your client will need this documentation plus proof the pandemic caused their housing emergency.

Become an Expert

Housing managers see the same mistakes on applications again and again. At my agency we could not process over 95% of initial housing applications because of those mistakes, despite the fact our requirements rarely changed.. Become an expert on each form so you will complete them correctly each time. 

The sheer size of the Plan funds will stretch the housing system’s capacity and amplify the tendency for errors. Agency staff will be hard pressed to reach out for corrections. Logic dictates that the applicants who submit complete, timely applications will receive assistance faster.  

There are multiple websites you can use to find out how the Plan funds are being administered. The Casebook blog post, Preventing a Wave of Homelessness: Tenant Rights and Rent Moratorium 2021, has a list of sites you can check. They will have names and contact information about agencies that are administering the funds. 

Documentation for Emergency Help 

The majority of  Plan funds will go through the Emergency Shelter Grant program (ESG), which is part of a federal homeless assistance program started over 20 years ago. ESG Homelessness Prevention Assistance helps people catch up on rents before they lose their housing and end up in homeless shelters or on the street. It will pay rent arrearages, utility arrearages, and home energy costs. People may be eligible for ongoing assistance, depending on their current income situation. 

ESG helps clients who are already homeless with the aptly named Rapid Re-Housing program. The program can pay the first month’s rent and security deposit. Clients may also be eligible for a longer-term rent subsidy.

ESG Eligibility

To obtain Homeless Prevention Assistance a household must be obligated to pay rent on a residential dwelling and that it will lose the housing without intervention. A copy of the lease will demonstrate an obligation to pay rent.  An eviction notice for an imminent loss of housing (usually within 10 days) will demonstrate the need for assistance. 

Clients will need a Certificate of Homelessness to qualify for Rapid Re-housing assistance. Your community will have a standard Certificate of Homelessness form to use. If you have never used that form you can contact your local Continuum of Care to obtain one. You can find local contact information here.

Both programs require proof that one or more individuals within the household experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardship due, directly or indirectly, to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Household income limits also apply:

    1. One or more has qualified for unemployment benefits. Provide an award letter, check stubs or proof of unemployment income direct deposits.  
    2. One or more individuals within the household can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.  
    3. The household has a total income at or below 80% of area median income for all household members: Payroll stubs, monthly unemployment statements, Social Security Administration award letter for disability or retirement income; court order or other proof of spousal support.

Common Documentation

If your clients are missing any of the following items they can get new ones issued. Generally, there are fees attached for replacement documentation. You can check with your local United Way Information and Referral Service (at 2-1-1 in most areas) for a list of such agencies. 

  • Proof of Identity
  • Birth Certificate and Social Security card for each adult
  • Birth certificate for each minor child living in the household
  • Social Security card for each minor child living in the household who is age five or older
  • Picture ID for each adult

Where to obtain or replace identity documentation:

Each county’s Office of Vital Records issues Birth Certificates. If you are not sure which county to contact you can go through the state’s index. This link will lead you to a site where you can search the entire state.

Social Security cards can be replaced via Immigrants with legal status may apply for a social security number or use other documentation they are in the U.S. legally, such as a work or student visa.

Picture ID cards are available at your local county registrar’s office or the Department of Motor Vehicles, (even if your client does not need a driver’s license.) Double check with those offices for the documentation your client should bring.

  •  Citizenship Declaration. 

Birth certificates prove citizenship. Naturalized citizens receive proof of that status after their naturalization ceremony. 

Undocumented immigrants who are victims of abuse are eligible for assistance through the Violence Against Women Act. This law protects victims of any gender whether they are legal residents or not. 

  • Family Summary Sheets

A Family Summary Sheet collects the names, ages and sex of each member of the household. This snapshot of family composition determines the size of unit for which your client is eligible if they . 

  • Race & Ethnic Data Reporting Form (optional)

Providers are required to ask clients for this information but  clients have the right to refuse to provide it. However, the information is gathered to show trends and project need. No personal individual identifying information is used.

Create a Housing Portfolio with Casebook

Casebook provides tools you can use to set up and maintain your client’s housing portfolio. You can use it to track updates to a client’s status on any of the qualifications, such as a change in income or household size.  The software has several functions that will work for this purpose.

  1. Keep track of contacts you have with housing providers, landlords and other agencies. A running log of your notes and conversations will help you manage the process.
  2. Manage the eligibility documentation you collect. Add paperwork as attachments to each person’s record. You can print new copies as you need them when you have to apply to multiple agencies for help. As a result, you will not need to rely on hard copy files that pile up on your desk.
  3. Maintain a history of service about housing related problems. If you have clients who struggled to pay the rent every month before the pandemic you can use these records to help them apply for ongoing housing assistance. 
  4. Many housing programs only serve people who are experiencing homelessness or they are on the brink of it. They give priority to people with extensive homeless histories. Use your Casebook record to document dates of each interaction with your client when you discuss the status of their housing. This creates a paper trail you can use later for applications for prioritized assistance.

So Much for the Paperwork Reduction Act

Forms aren’t a fun topic to read about and completing them is even worse. Anyone working in social services is all too familiar with the problem. Regrettably, we can’t change the fact that a lot of paperwork is standing between your client and needed services. But we can change how we work within the system by collecting all of the required information before submitting each application. 


Associated Content:

Is Your Client Homeless Enough? The details around qualifications

Pave the Way Home: Collaborations for Safe Housing and Survivor Services


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