The need is overwhelming, and the dollars won’t stretch far enough.

But can colleges, community-based organizations, or funders find any economies of scale or leverage points to maximize the impact of emergency aid for students in the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, particularly for rent costs? This blog entry includes three levels of response I’ve been pondering. Please send comments with your thoughts and share any examples of solutions you have found!

Even before the pandemic began, more than half of four-year university students, and two-thirds of community college students, struggled to maintain a $500 emergency cushion. More than a quarter of students experienced months where they ran out of money (p. 4). As many as half of a college’s students may be housing insecure (p. 16). Colleges and universities that provide emergency aid grants to students consistently find that students need assistance with rent payments. And the situation is even worse now.

Image of a young woman talking on her cellphone and looking over paperwork.Federal stimulus dollars are on their way, but we anticipate that need will outpace funding. Foundations are searching for ways to leverage their limited funding to address this enormous need so that students—particularly students who are most likely to be adversely affected by the health and economic crisis—can continue their studies and avoid both homelessness and the bad credit that could crush their chances of achieving financial stability, now and in the future. Evictions can hurt a student through increased legal fees, wage garnishment, and by affecting their credit history.

Rent costs are typically much more than the average $500 emergency grant award, but even assuming this amount, a college receiving a $100,000 private donation can only serve 200 students. For most colleges, this barely scratches the surface. For example, in just one week in April, Amarillo College distributed $10,000 in emergency aid, and the majority of requests were for rent assistance.

Is there any way we can stretch those dollars to help more students?

Through online research and conversations with brilliant colleagues, I offer the following thoughts for colleges and universities, nonprofit support providers, and funders—listed from lowest-scale to broadest scale, and all employing some of the same underlying assumptions. Please note that some of these would only be applicable to aid from private funding sources due to restrictions on the federal funding distribution. Private funds that can be disbursed directly to a vendor may have more room for leverage than federal funding.

  • Empower students to negotiate for themselves with landlords
  • Negotiate on behalf of individual students
  • Negotiate on a broader scale

Empower students

Through template language with key bullet points, help students ask their landlords:

  • Do you have a process in place for requesting assistance due to COVID-19?
    • Some properties have visible processes, but some will only share their processes if the resident specifically asks for assistance.
  • Do you have an FHA loan requiring waiver of late fees and evictions?
  • Can you offer any payment plan and/or reduction in rent?
    • If your city has guidelines in place encouraging, or requiring, landlords to waive late fees and evictions, the school can provide this information to students to help them advocate for fulfillment of the terms.

Rationale: explain your situation to the landlord. Underscore a record of on-time payment; the longer you have been a renter in good standing, the better your negotiation position. Explain you understand the landlord is living through the same economic crisis that you are, and you are committed to remaining a renter in good standing, but you are struggling. (If the student can leverage language from the college, this might also help. Example: I have an opportunity to apply for one-time rent assistance through my school’s emergency aid program, but they are prioritizing students who have both significant need and a supportive landlord. If I can demonstrate in writing that you are willing to waive late fees and evictions for the next 90 days and are willing to give me a 10% discount on rent for the next 90 days, it will increase my chances of receiving the aid and being able to meet my financial obligations to you.) Note: This final sentence would only be relevant for using private funding, not federal stimulus dollars.

Negotiate on behalf of individual students

This would be based on the same rationale as the above discussion on individual student negotiation. It involves more time investment on the part of the college or university but may yield more success based on the reputation of the school. An existing relationship with the property owner may be even more successful.

Negotiate on a broader scale

Here’s where it gets interesting and speculative. Is there a bulk purchasing lever here?

Is there a scenario with a win-win for property owners who are losing money if students can’t pay anyway, and students/campuses trying to stretch their limited dollars?

  • Does your campus already know of properties housing multiple students who are likely to need assistance? Can you reach out to them, even ahead of requests for emergency aid, to negotiate assistance such as waiver of late fees and evictions and reduced rent costs? Even if the property manager won’t offer reduced rent upfront, can you negotiate a deal where, if the college receives a request for emergency rent assistance for any of their properties, the school will pay the rent at a reduced rate and the remainder of the balance will be forgiven?
  • Is there space for higher-level negotiation? Can you partner with a local apartment association for broader application of terms? What about a college system-level negotiation with an apartment association? Since the apartment association likely doesn’t have the authority to require discounts, is there an additional incentive? Can the college system and the association publicize partners who have agreed to the terms, so that the property managers get positive press in addition to receiving the rent funds on time from their student residents? Some background: On April 1, The Texas Tribune reported, “The Texas Apartment Association is encouraging landlords and property managers to make payment arrangements with people affected by the coronavirus crisis and to waive late fees, association President Mark Hurley said. His company has reduced rent by 10% for all tenants through April.”
  • These levers may be more applicable for disbursing private emergency aid dollars, as the federal funding through the CARES Act must be disbursed to the student rather than the vendor. Are there ways to adjust these levers so costs savings can be realized through the federal funding as well?

Please share your thoughts and the approaches you have tried! If you would like to receive templates or other resources that correspond to the above ideas, please email me at

Additional resources on designing an emergency aid response to the COVID-19 crisis for colleges and universities:
Trellis Company Emergency Aid Resources During COVID-19
Maximizing the Impact of CARES Emergency Aid Funds for Students,” Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

About the Author

An image of Jenny Achilles, Trellis Foundation's Director of Partnerships and Programs.

Ms. Achilles joined Trellis Foundation (then Trellis Company/TG) in 2013 with nearly a decade of higher education service in various capacities, including student affairs and study abroad advising. Ms. Achilles serves on the Central Texas Education Funders Network steering committee and as co-chair for the Grantmakers for Education Data Impact Group. She previously served on the Membership Committee for the National Scholarship Providers Association from 2015-2017. She also leads the board of directors for a nonprofit dance and wellness studio in Austin.

She earned a bachelor’s of science in communication from Lamar University and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and public policy, with a focus on nonprofit studies.