The federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of this month, which doesn't leave much time to help an estimated 7 million tenants who are still behind on their rent.
Efforts have been stepped up to distribute some $46 billion in emergency rental assistance, and to head off eviction cases before they end up in court.
Shelley Miller, of the Alexandria Eviction Prevention Partnership in Northern Virginia, says it's a challenge. Her group, which includes several local nonprofits, has been working with city agencies and landlords since last year to help tenants at risk of eviction.
"It's been a rough go," she says. "Nobody was prepared for this on any level, any front."
Some of the tenants are in more dire need than others. One man arrived last week at their outreach clinic, at a community center called Casa Chirilagua, carrying an envelope stuffed with papers. One was a court notice saying he was about to be evicted the following day because he owes $10,000 in back rent.
"I'm going to e-mail the landlord right now, to get the lease and the ledger, the updated one," Miller tells the man. NPR agreed not to use clients' names because of the sensitivity of their cases.
It turns out the man's application for emergency rental assistance was incomplete. He also hadn't filled out a necessary form declaring his eligibility for the eviction moratorium. Miller e-mails a copy to the local sheriff.
"We'll let you know if we need anything else," she says, knocking on the table. "But I'm hoping we'll be good to go."
Most of those who come to the clinic lost jobs during the pandemic. Now, with the economy picking up, many can't find the child care they need to return to work.
This eviction prevention program has been trying to stay ahead of the curve. But Miller says people are often confused. The application forms are complicated and, in Virginia, only available online and in English. Some tenants don't trust their landlords and vice versa.
Danien Johnson, who directs the partnership and is with a social service provider called ALIVE!, says some tenants are so worried about getting evicted they won't even open the mail.
"We get a lot of people that just can't do anything," she says. "They don't want to answer the phone. The landlord may even be calling them to try to help them."
Her group formed the partnership to link tenants, landlords and government agencies before events spiral out of control and delinquent tenants end up in court or, worse, out in the street.
Sharon Thames, regional property manager with Morgan Properties, which has almost 3,000 units in Alexandria, says her company has been working closely with the partnership and the city since last year. They host weekly outreach clinics for tenants struggling to pay rent and repeatedly send messages telling them help is available.
"You know, as landlords, we don't want vacant housing," she says, "And we also want to help the resident." They also want to collect the rent and avoid court proceedings, which can be costly, time-consuming and leave tenants with a record that will haunt them for years.
But such alliances of tenants, landlords and agencies are rare.
The Biden administration, which is worried about a flood of evictions once the moratorium ends, has been encouraging communities to adopt similar efforts as soon as they can. At a White House summit last week, officials touted a Philadelphia law that requires landlords to seek rental assistance and mediation with tenants, before they can go court.
Biden senior advisor Gene Sperling warned that the country is in a race with time, with emergency rental aid only trickling out.
"We are asking our states and local governments to do everything they can to fill that void in a hurry," he said. "Some are ramping up admirably. Some are lagging. But we all have to do better."
The Treasury Department reported last week that only $1.5 billion of an initial $25 billion in emergency aid had been spent by the end of May. More money has started to flow since, but state and local governments have taken months to get their programs up and running.
Housing advocates say the next few weeks are crucial. One big challenge is getting the word out more widely that help is available. A recent Urban Institute survey found that a majority of tenants and 40 percent of small landlords don't even know about the emergency rental assistance program, which is available through next September.
Miller says, as word spreads, her partnership is seeing more tenants earlier in the process, before they get eviction notices from their landlords. But most cases are still too close for comfort.
On the day I visit, a mother of two small children arrives at the clinic, worried she won't get her rental aid in time. Miller explains that there's an app she can use to see the status of her application.
When she logs in, the woman gets a huge surprise. Her aid has been approved! More than $7,000 in back rent has been paid and she has a $2,800 credit for the next two months.
With tears in her eyes, she hugs Miller and a colleague. The woman says she will finally be able to sleep.
Miller fears such victories will be temporary, especially when the moratorium ends.
"I think we're gonna be in a world of hurt," she says. Many of the people she sees are still living on the edge, and good, affordable housing is harder than ever to find.