Avoid These Common Mistakes When Designing Emergency Rental Assistance Programs

State and local governments, along with their nonprofit partners, have extraordinary new resources intended to help people stay housed, resources that can prevent evictions and homelessness. To make the most of this opportunity, policymakers and program implementers should avoid making the following common mistakes when designing emergency rental assistance programs.

  1. Overlooking those without formal leases, eviction notices or housing.
    Most people who enter homeless shelter programs do so after staying with extended family or friends, not in homes where they were the leaseholder or owner. Policymakers should adopt strategies to ensure assistance reaches people at heightened risk of homelessness who may be living in doubled up situations or self-paying in hotels or motels. Focusing only on those with traditional leases will likely result in missing those most likely to become homeless.
  1. Failing to leverage the data and expertise of homeless assistance partners.
    Policymakers and program implementers can augment what they have already learned about those at risk of homelessness from national research by leveraging the expertise of people in the local homeless services system. Local data and the expertise of providers and people with lived experience can lend clarity to policymakers on how to target rental assistance and where to house interventions so assistance reaches those at greatest risk. Homelessness providers also have skills that would be enormously valuable to leverage to implement interventions, including providing diversion assistance, landlord mediation, and helping people rapidly reconnect to housing.
  1. Expecting equity to occur without an intentional effort to achieve it.
    Black, Indigenous, and Latino households are at far greater risk of homelessness than white households. This is a result of historical and ongoing discriminatory practices and social policies that perpetuate disparity. It is imperative that policymakers and program implementers take intentional steps to ensure emergency rental assistance reaches people equitably and addresses disparate program impacts. Such steps will help reduce the disparity in who becomes homeless and avoid the danger of further exacerbating inequity. Embracing equity in emergency rental assistance may require policymakers to engage new partners, including those with lived experience of homelessness, and supporting innovative new ways of delivering assistance.
  1. Assuming people at highest risk of homelessness will find the help available to them.
    Policymakers and program implementers should take proactive action steps to find those at highest risk of homelessness, not just wait for program interventions to be found.  With local data about groups at heightened risk of homelessness, program implementers can engage in targeted outreach and education about available assistance. Partners that frequently serve or interact with people at high risk of homelessness (e.g. TANF agencies, city jails, schools) may also agree to conduct screenings as part of their own data collection or intake processes to find people facing imminent homelessness so those at risk can be connected to resources that will enable them to avoid homelessness.  
  1. Neglecting to continuously assess performance and adjust interventions.
    Policymakers and program implementers should continuously assess who is being served by emergency rental assistance programs and contrast that with data on who is becoming homeless and their trajectories into shelter. This will shed light on populations ill-served by existing programs and policies, and allow policymakers and program implementers the opportunity to regularly improve interventions by making policy adjustments or engaging new partners to reach underserved populations. Through this process, localities can improve their impact in preventing homelessness with available resources.


Millions of individuals and families are at risk of losing their homes due to the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The task of developing the infrastructure to deliver the urgently needed assistance quickly is certainly overwhelming. It is imperative, however, that care is taken in program design and policy development that people at the greatest risk of entering homelessness are not overlooked in the design of interventions.  Ensuring assistance reaches them will require intentionality and careful strategic planning. The consequence of neglecting this could easily result in further overwhelming emergency shelter programs and increases in unsheltered homelessness.