Rebecca Kueber is a single mom of five living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kueber lost her restaurant job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and although she found a new position soon after, she had to quit to be home to help her kids with their online classes.
“Sometimes we had food to eat, other times we didn’t,” Keuber says through an interpreter. “All the money that came in was for food, toiletries, and home costs. Despite that, my rent has accumulated and so have my bills.”
Keuber owes rent from as far back as January. She filled out the state-provided application for federal rent relief money, but said it was “complicated and hard to understand.” It also required she provide information from her uncooperative landlord and documentation from agencies Keuber said she often couldn’t reach by phone.
“Please, I don’t want to be evicted from my home. I don’t want to be in the streets with my children,” Keuber says. “This situation has me and my whole family stressed out, and I’m very, very afraid.”
Three weeks after Keuber submitted her application through the state’s website, she was still waiting for an answer. So was her landlord. The disastrous rollout of Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) money has left Keuber and her children at risk of displacement, eviction, and homelessness while they wait.
Keuber and millions of other desperate renters often wait weeks or months for federal rent relief money—if they get it at all. But it didn’t have to be like this. And for some Santa Fe residents, it wasn’t.
Last fall, it took the City of Santa Fe about six weeks to pump $7.65 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money directly to area residents whose incomes were wrecked by the pandemic, with much of that money given as cash payments. Applicants were asked a very simple set of qualification questions that required very little documentation for approval.
“If they needed assistance, they needed assistance. Our principle was to ask people what they needed, and then believe them,” says Kyra Ochoa, director of community services for the City of Santa Fe. “Some programs have backbreaking amounts of paperwork they make poor people fill out to prove how poor they are.”
CONNECTing People with Cash
Santa Fe at a Glance
In 2019, the City of Santa Fe had 84,683 residents. More than 55 percent of the population identified as Hispanic/Latino, 40 percent white alone, 1.8 percent American Indian or Alaska Native alone, 1.8 percent Asian alone, and 1.2 percent Black alone.
In 2019, the city had 13,531 renter households.
Santa Fe has the highest average rents in New Mexico. Santa Fe’s weighted market-rate rents increased in 2019 by 11.49 percent to $952 for a one bedroom and $1,071 for a two-bedroom apartment.
In 2020, Santa Fe was short approximately 7,343 rental units.
Despite the state’s eviction moratorium—which continues throughout New Mexico—63.2 percent of the evictions filed in Santa Fe courts were due to nonpayment of rent.
While most of the country was still in the “15 days to slow the spread” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Fe was already taking action. Mayor Alan Webber in mid-March 2020 indefinitely halted evictions and water shutoffs, delayed collections of certain municipal taxes, and made public buses free. The city also tapped into its existing CONNECT network, comprised of community agencies and organizations that help locals with basic needs, including housing, food, and health care services.
In the last two months of 2020, the CONNECT network and its partners got almost $5.2 million directly to tenants. Of that, $3.66 million came from CARES Act money, while the City of Santa Fe Youth and Family Services Division pitched in the rest. By January, 12,462 Santa Fe households had received CARES Act money through CONNECT.
“That money was spent really quickly—within a matter of weeks it was all gone. Right now the [ERAP] money that’s being distributed is through the state, and it’s happening slowly,” says Tomás Rivera, executive director of Chainbreaker Collective, a local economic and environmental justice nonprofit instrumental in getting the money out. “The juxtaposition between the original eviction prevention money and the way it’s rolling out right now, the difference is just night and day.”
Through the CONNECT program, the city partnered with Chainbreaker Collective, immigrant justice advocacy organization Somos un Pueblo Unido, and anti-poverty community investment platform UpTogether to distribute easy-access, one-time payments of $750 to Santa Feans who were skipped over by stimulus money due to their tax status and weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, and as much as $3,000 in rent-specific, low-barrier assistance to folks suffering economic setbacks due to the pandemic.
Rivera says the group had zero problem getting the money out in that tight, six-week time frame, thanks to intense community organizing, an easy set of qualification questions, and the city “sticking their necks out.”
Santa Fe County piloted the CONNECT program in 2015, and the City of Santa Fe joined in 2019, bringing new funding and more than a dozen new partnerships. When the pandemic hit, CONNECT staffers ramped up services, launching a public portal specifically to hook people up with the services they needed. By September 2020, when the city announced it had received $17.6 million in pass-through funding from the CARES Act, the networking capabilities were already in place.
In late 2020, the City of Santa Fe partnered with PolicyLink and other organizations to study how to “create a more equitable housing system for all residents” in the wake of the pandemic. The study found that 5,700 Santa Fe renter households were at risk of eviction when the moratoriums expire. It also found, though, that the combination of the moratorium and government rent relief halved the total number of evictions filed last year, dropping from an average rate of 558 per year to just 280 in 2020.
“Chainbreakers and Somos and other groups who really are on the ground know how to get the money into the pockets where it does the most good the most quickly,” says mayor Webber. With direct cash assistance, he notes, “Folks who need help not only get money but have that opportunity to deploy that money in ways that make their lives and their families’ lives better.”
Why It Worked in Santa Fe
There were several reasons Santa Fe was successful at getting its tranche of rent relief money out the door fast: The existing CONNECT network navigators knew where to find the neediest applicants, qualifying for help was easy and didn’t require much documentation, and applicants were given cash, which further reduced barriers to entry by bypassing landlord participation and forgoing proof of an existing lease or billable back rent.
Additionally, Santa Fe has a progressive government, which Rivera says made it easier to get a response to the pressure their groups applied to get the city to act quickly using the existing safety net network and agree to target marginalized folks with direct cash assistance. Webber recently participated in a press conference discussing the city’s rent relief direct cash assistance program, calling housing a “fundamental human right,” and saying the city’s housing affordability crisis “existed before COVID, but COVID ripped the Band-Aid off and made us aware of just how severe our community needs are.”
Elton Gumbel, UpTogether’s membership and communications director, credits the city of Santa Fe’s “efforts to be intentional about having a streamlined process that was simple to understand and easily accessible to households who needed it the most” for facilitating his organization’s speedy efforts to get the money distributed.
Many Santa Feans who got direct cash payments from CONNECT were ineligible for previous influxes of relief because they or someone in their family are undocumented, or they didn’t have proper tax or lease documentation to qualify (i.e., they worked under the table and/or had nontraditional rent agreements). It was Chainbreaker and Somos’s advocacy that ensured applicants whose work situation made them ineligible for federal stimulus checks, whose job loss came with no employer support, or who’d faced other bureaucratic roadblocks when applying for money were still able to access CONNECT funds, says city spokesperson Ochoa.
“Not only were they instrumental in us making the decision to pilot direct case assistance, it was because of their input about the people they were hearing from that we learned their members really struggling with some of the bureaucratic processes,” she says. “So our partnership with the advocacy groups is really key.”
The Case for Direct Cash Assistance
There’s a lot of paternalism around giving cash directly to poor people. While some conservative policy wonks argue that families relying on social safety net services don’t know what’s best for themselves, plenty of more progressive researchers advocate for direct cash assistance—and there’s plenty of evidence it works. In fact, recent U.S. studies of the direct cash welfare system showed it was “really, really good for children,” and that the effects on kids’ longevity and income meant the program “paid for itself.”
At one time, the U.S. welfare system gave poor people cash, but American policymakers moved deliberately toward a voucher system for specific needs decades ago. Other countries also use direct cash assistance programs to effectively fight poverty—such as Ecuador’s Human Development Bonus, Mexico’s Progresa program, and Malawi’s Social Action Fund. Though giving no-strings-attached money has been proven to pull people out of poverty, it’s still a tough sell. The round of money Santa Fe used in late 2020 came from the CARES Act, which came through the state and had more flexible distribution rules, Ochoa says. Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds, which were issued in early 2021, aren’t so flexible.
“We have not yet secured ERAP funding for CONNECT, but are working on it,” Ochoa says. “The state is not keen to allow us to distribute ERAP via direct assistance.”
The state’s concern is that U.S. Treasury Department guidelines don’t allow ERAP money to be given as direct cash payments, but Ochoa is hopeful “they will come around.” On Aug. 25—the day before the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the national eviction ban—the treasury announced new, relaxed guidelines aimed at “accelerating the distribution” of Emergency Rental Assistance money to needy households. The updated guidelines don’t make a single mention of direct cash payments to tenants.
“The most obvious and clear solution to helping distribute relief to people is through direct cash assistance, and I think people know that,” says Rivera of the Chainbreaker Collective.
People in Santa Fe, including the local government, are more likely to see direct cash payments as an “obvious and clear” solution than other, less progressive, cities. Santa Fe has long been a strong sanctuary city, supports strong immigrant advocacy organizations such as the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and recently signed on to be one of a few dozen U.S. cities running a pilot guaranteed basic income program. The city’s progressive leadership and strong advocacy network were key in moving the money out in the form of direct cash payments, and the low barriers to application approval indicate that.
“We didn’t require documentation of need. This is the key,” Ochoa says. “We required proof of identity so that people couldn’t double dip, and proof they were city residents, and they attested to their own need.”
UpTogether employees vetted applicants’ information, confirmed identification, and ensured they were eligible for the program.
“They basically promised that they were answering honestly,” Ochoa says. “And what skeptics don’t understand is that people are honest when they answer these questions, and they take it seriously … we do more harm than good by making these funds difficult to access. We don’t do the individuals any good, and we don’t do the community any good as a whole. Now we know these funds went directly into our local economy however people chose to spend them. We know that these funds stabilized people in crisis.”
The small city of Santa Fe and its robust network of community organizers and grassroots advocacy groups got millions to struggling families—allowing them to buy food, keep the power on, and temporarily stave off eviction—in just a few weeks last year.
In contrast, by mid-May 2021, the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration had issued just one-tenth of 1 percent, or less than $400,000, of the $284 million it got in federal CARES money (which had the end-of-year-payout requirement dropped after CONNECT had distributed all of its funds), not to mention only 3.4 percent (as of this writing) of the emergency rental funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, which included billions in ERAP money. It’s not just New Mexico. It’s most of the country: As of Aug. 26, state and local programs had got a little more than $5 billion of more than $46 billion in federal rent relief money out the door.
A handful of states and municipalities like Santa Fe have managed to get a good chunk of their federal rent relief money to broke and exasperated tenants, but most have been slow to act, set up cumbersome and confusing application processes and narrow eligibility criteria, and some have even spent their rent relief money on completely unrelated programs.
Though some temporary state-level moratoriums still cover tenants, the zero-hour approaches for vulnerable households. Cities like Santa Fe, which have partnered with local groups to understand what aid is needed by whom, and used that knowledge to create low-barrier programs that offer cash directly to tenants, may see fewer of their most vulnerable residents on the streets and in homeless shelters.