Local Counties Can’t Require Social Security Numbers For Rental Assistance, Housing Advocates Say

A drive-up site where applications in Spanish, English and Creole are offered for emergency rental assistance in Miami-Dade County, during the coronavirus pandemic. Housing advocates say some state and local governments are breaking federal law by asking applicants to provide a Social Security number to receive assistance.

Lynne Sladky / AP Photo

State and local governments around the country are distributing billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance as part of a nationwide program.

But housing advocates say some are imposing a rule that’s against federal law—and could exclude tenants who are immigrants.

The requirement is included in Georgia among Cobb County’s list of necessary information for rental assistance. The county asks for documents, like a signed lease and an overdue rent notice, to ensure applicants are at risk of losing housing.

Then, tenants also have to give a Social Security number.

That last qualification is the problem, said Kate Walz, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project.

“A state or local government is not free to demand that a person, as a condition of receipt of those benefits, provide a Social Security number,” she said.

Walz said the rental assistance funding, which came from the two most recent stimulus bills, is subject to federal privacy laws. Under that law, state and local governments can’t require Social Security numbers unless authorized within the federal program.

When Congress approved more than $40 billion for rental assistance, it didn’t include a requirement for tenants’ Social Security numbers. Walz said the federal government isn’t even instructing state and local governments to collect identification from applicants.

“The goal of these dollars is to keep people housed during a pandemic, not to put hurdles before them,” Walz said.

A Social Security number can be a major hurdle for undocumented families who are otherwise eligible for this aid, according to Belisa Urbina, executive director of Ser Familia.

She said these families have already been left out of most assistance programs during the pandemic because of documentation requirements. Now when they visit one of her nonprofit’s two offices in Cobb County, their unpaid bills have piled up.

“It’s not $1000 or $2,000. It’s $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 and more that people owe in rent, that they have not been able to find anybody that can help them,” Urbina said.

Cobb County said the providers administering its rental assistance funding use Social Security numbers to track applications. The county’s legal team is now reviewing the process.