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The eviction moratorium is about to end, yet federal relief funds largely remain unspent

"Do not evict," one Mississippi official cautioned landlords. "Please wait, the money is coming."
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JACKSON, Miss. — Demia Burse worries about driving home from her housekeeping shift at a hotel and finding her life upended. Her apartment complex in north Jackson has already told her it wants her out.

Burse, a mom of three, fell behind on rent after she left her job as a certified nursing assistant to help her children with virtual school. Burse started asking Hinds County in April for help paying two to three months of back rent. But she questions whether any of the $25 billion Congress approved in December for emergency rental assistance will reach her landlord in time.

“[I] pray to God when I get home my stuff’s not sitting outside," Burse said.

While Burse is seeking assistance locally, Mississippi's separate federally funded $186 million statewide program has faced its own trials. As of July 13, the Mississippi Home Corporation, which oversees paying out the funds, had distributed $10 million — or just about 6 percent of the money.

Demia Burse in front of her apartment complex in Jackson, Miss.
Demia Burse in front of her apartment complex in Jackson, Miss.Eric Salzman / NBC News

The sparse spending isn't isolated to Mississippi. Only a fraction of the country's funds are expected to be distributed before the eviction moratorium expires at the end of July.

NBC News contacted all 50 states and the District of Columbia about their emergency rental assistance programs. An analysis of responses from 41 states found that 26 of them had distributed less than 10 percent of their first allocations, although several programs had just begun distributing money in June.

The reasons the aid hasn't reached frustrated landlords and nervous tenants are complex, from the inevitable stumbles that come with setting up new programs to software woes to varied degrees of hesitancy among states to sign off on payments without extensive documentation of need.

What's clear is the fallout could be punishing for generations.

"Eviction is not a single event in a person's life that you just recover from momentarily. It is associated with numerous health outcomes that can haunt a person throughout their entire life, taking years off," said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University and chair of the American Bar Association's Covid-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction. "At the same time, the eviction itself is a legal record that is searchable and can be used to screen tenants out of safe and decent housing in the future."

"Eviction is not a single event in a person's life that you just recover from momentarily."

An NBC News analysis of Census Household Pulse Survey data shows an overlap in some states that have the country's highest percentages of tenants behind on rent and programs that have gotten off to slower starts.

In South Carolina, less than 1 percent of funds had been spent by July 15. Of renters in the state taking the survey, 29 percent said they were behind on payments, the highest percentage in the country. By mid-July, the state's emergency rental assistance program had processed 226 applications.

Mississippi started sending money to landlords in May. Although the state's spending has ramped up from distributing less than $133,700 in the first month of its program to $10 million by mid-July, it has a backlog of nearly 1,000 applications. The state also has the second highest percentage of tenants behind on rent, and the highest percent who think they are likely to be evicted.

Scott Spivey, executive director of the Mississippi Home Corporation, which oversees the funds, said applications are often turned in with missing information, prolonging the process. Sorting through requests and clarifying for tenants what documents are required takes time. He said the program's attorneys are reviewing guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department that could whittle down the amount of paperwork applicants have to submit.

Scott Spivey, executive director of the Mississippi Home Corporation.
Scott Spivey, executive director of the Mississippi Home Corporation.Eric Salzman / NBC News

In the meantime, Spivey urges landlords to be patient as the agency works through a backlog. He cautioned that property owners can't receive back rent directly from the agency for evicted tenants.

"Do not evict," he said. "Please wait, the money is coming. Don't take drastic action as soon as July 31 passes, because then you won't be entitled to any funds to make up for your losses over the pandemic."

New York is the sole state not to have paid out any funds through June. The state has received more than 160,000 applications for its program, and expects to send funds for nearly 5,000 requests by early August. A spokesman noted that, “tenants who have submitted a completed application remain protected from eviction,” even as they wait for payments.

Virginia and Texas have distributed the highest proportions of their funds. Virginia has already spent half of its allocation, while Texas has paid out 45 percent. Both states have aligned their programs with updated guidelines from the Biden administration that can make it easier for renters to get help.

Texas now waits five days to hear back from the landlords of renters applying for assistance before it pays tenants directly. Previously, the state waited 10 days. Virginia uses community census data as a "fact-based proxy" that can indicate whether a household's income would qualify for the program.

In interviews, housing advocates, policy experts and program administrators agreed that verifying that a renter doesn't make too much to receive assistance is one of the most cumbersome steps for applicants because of the documentation involved.

But advocates say some state and local programs are shunning flexibility encouraged by the Treasury Department and sticking to rigid paperwork requirements, instead of allowing tenants to attest to certain circumstances.

"This is counter to clear direction and guidance from the White House and has the effect of slowing down the process for everyone and often weeding out" vulnerable renters, said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

A Treasury official suggested that part of the reluctance to allow applicants to self-certify stems from administrative fears of being penalized in future audits. The official expressed concerns about states with weak tenant protections being less likely to accept fewer documents from applicants.

The result is an approval process that can drag out for weeks or more as tenants scramble to submit the correct documentation while federal eviction protections rapidly fray.

Burse initially thought she needed to provide copies of her children's birth certificates to get assistance. Last week, she received a notice that she couldn't finish her application until she uploaded the records. All her children were born in Georgia — obtaining three copies would cost at least $75.

It wasn't until she attended a crowded information session at a nearby church, where the air was thick with the Mississippi heat, that she learned that she could substitute her children's Social Security numbers instead.

Demia Burse fell behind on rent after she left her job as a certified nursing assistant to help her children with virtual school.
Demia Burse fell behind on rent after she left her job as a certified nursing assistant to help her children with virtual school.Eric Salzman / NBC News

In South Carolina, which has the country's highest eviction rate, applicants could face fewer hurdles now that the state no longer requires tenants to provide paperwork showing how the pandemic has hurt them financially.

Chris Winston, a spokesman for the state Housing Finance and Development Authority, said program administrators initially envisioned that the documentation to demonstrate harm would be simple. A self-employed painter, he said, might submit a handwritten ledger showing how jobs had decreased over the last year. But tenant advocates said the requirement was confusing, and the agency ultimately ended up removing it. Now, applicants are required only to give their word about Covid-19 related hardships.

Not all programs are flailing. Several local governments have managed to push assistance out quickly, even as spending from statewide programs remains low.

In Mississippi, Burse has tried to balance the uncertainty of the coming weeks with small moments of joy. Her oldest child recently made her high school's drill team. And Burse welcomes the opportunity to smile. At times, she said, her youngest children seem unsuspecting about how precarious their situation is.

"So many nights you sit up wondering about what the next move is, what you’re going to do," she said. "Me, personally, I'm not really laying down until I have it figured out.”

Bracey Harris reported from Jackson, Mississippi, and Adiel Kaplan reported from Seattle.