When Shelter Comes Down to the Luck of the Draw

June rent is due this week, and for millions of tenants, the options for relief are running out. After a brief pause, about half of US states are now allowing evictions again. The number of people paying rent with their credit cards has risen sharply, available data suggests, and hundreds of thousands have joined rent strikes since March 2020, according to a national coalition coordinating rent strikes by those who can’t or won’t pay this month.

With no large-scale federal action on housing in sight, and evictions resuming in several more states, including Nebraska, Mississippi, and Rhode Island, this week, whether renters can keep a roof over their heads may literally be up to chance. Some state and local governments are putting federal coronavirus-response dollars toward emergency housing assistance, but with the need outstripping available funding, at least 10 cities in six states are relying on lottery systems to disburse funds. A small fraction of renters who apply get help, while everyone else misses out.

That was the case for John McKarthy, who jumped at the opportunity to enter a lottery for rent assistance provided by the city of Miami last month.

“The thing opened at noon, and by 12:01, my application was submitted,” he told me. The president of his local screen actors’ guild, McKarthy typically earns a living with commercial gigs, but filming has dried up this year. The personal-training business he runs also shut down in March, when the city issued a stay-at-home order. That has left McKarthy struggling to come up with $1,680 this month for the apartment he shares with his 4-year-old son in one of the country’s most expensive metro areas for renters.

After launching on May 4, Miami’s Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program will provide up to $1,500 for those who lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19 (among other criteria), a lifeline in an area hard-hit by tourism and service industry layoffs. But the $2 million allocated from federal and state funding won’t be enough to support everyone, so the city is using a computerized lottery to pick which renters get a break. After 50 years of cuts to federal housing funding, rationing affordable housing via lotteries is now normalized, and today only about a quarter of low-income households that qualify for housing assistance ever receive it. But during a pandemic, the stakes of a housing lottery are higher than ever.