California had been experiencing a decades-long housing crisis. While average salaries are high in the state, low income families have been increasingly priced out of their neighborhoods, including in previously affordable areas of the state.
Then COVID-19 hit. Within a few short months the country in general and its most populous state in particular faced a wave of pending evictions and foreclosures. Early reports showed that marginalized populations were disproportionately affected, but even previously economically stable households now faced uncertainty. Serving the impacted households required a unified response from disparate agencies and on-the-ground outreach programs.
The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit financial institution, was tasked with strategically administering the country’s largest eviction-risk support program. They did so through novel data insights from UrbanFootprint and on-the-ground efforts from the Local Partner Network (LPNs). LISC, working with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), successfully served over 700,000 in-need households, improving housing and economic stability throughout the Golden State.
The California COVID-19 rent relief program was the largest and most successful program in the country, delivering more direct assistance than any other state in rent relief and eviction protection during the pandemic
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) in California provided financial assistance to renters facing eviction due to COVID-19 related financial hardship. The program was administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development through funding from the federal government’s Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. But, the on-the-ground deployment of these dollars fell on the shoulders of multiple local partners and non-governmental organizations.
Eligible households could receive up to 12 months of rental assistance, with a maximum of $3,000 per month. The assistance could be used to pay past-due rent, current rent, and future rent. Households were also eligible for assistance with utility bills. To be eligible, renters must have a household income at or below 80% of the area median income and experienced financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The California ERAP program took a human-centered design approach, which included a combination of phone and in-person communications, online and social media awareness, and other proactive methods to break down barriers for applicants.
This culminated in a 5-tier model for LPNs:
Still, with so many households at-risk, they needed a targeted way to engage in these conversations and ensure the timely dispersal of funds. But no such database existed. LISC knew that for an effective and efficient operation, they needed regularly updated insights into a shifting at-risk landscape and application progress tracking.
LISC partnered with UrbanFootprint to use census data, community surveys, and neural networks to produce first-of-its-kind eviction risk insights. The estimates are produced by statistical models that use machine-learning-based small-area estimation to estimate numbers and percentages of households at risk. These estimates for part of UrbanFootprint’s Assist package in the form of Eviction Risk Insights (ERI).
While all government assistance programs face equity challenges, mitigating these challenges requires domain specific insights. Improving equitable outcomes for affordable housing and eviction risk aid requires a deep understanding of ways that community vulnerability, the built environment, housing and risk exposure factors intersect and may magnify one another. Many publicly available datasets are published at the census tract scale, which conceals local variabilities in vulnerability. UrbanFootprint provided block-group, or neighborhood level data to ensure actionable granularity.
How UrbanFootprint delivered:
Successfully delivering on these target metrics would lead to real-world impact for vulnerable communities. While only about 1 in 3 rental households have children, half of applications in California came from rental households with children. Using data to drive target outreach, LISC distributed aid to more than 340,000 families. Over 86% of those recipients were very low- or extremely low-income households. This meant maintaining stability for school children, as well at risk households of color, aging populations, and veterans. It kept business owners in their homes, especially in historically disadvantaged communities.
LISC delivered a massive-scale success story for California.
But housing challenges persist. Home purchasing and relocation activities during the pandemic created a new and troubling normal – more than half of Californians are rent burdened, paying 30% or more of their income toward housing. That number jumps to 76% for extremely low incomes. Estimates suggest that California is more than 1 million affordable rental units short to ease this burden. And California is not alone – over 40% of renters throughout the US are also rent burdened.
As individuals and families put more of their income toward housing, it means that they have less income to spend on essential needs such as food, medicine, and energy bills. With added inflationary pressures, more people will be on the margins and at risk of eviction, leaving cities and local stakeholders challenged to service at-risk households. There are leading indicators, such as access to broadband, as well as integrated eligibility measures that can help stakeholders monitor changes in eviction-risk populations.
There is no single solution to the rental crisis facing California and other parts of the country. Proactive policy solutions can ease shortages in the long-term, but in the mean-time, organizations such as LISC are leading the way by using data-driven insights to reach those most in-need to provide neighborhood level stability, one resident at a time.