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Program to keep Pa. renters in their homes struggling to distribute funds

Pittsburgh, PA #pittsburgh-pa – With a statewide moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent ending Monday, a program to get aid to struggling renters and landlords is operating too slowly, advocates and officials say.

Millions of dollars in federal aid has been allocated for renter and landlord relief, but very little of it has been spent, largely because of bureaucratic problems with distributing the funds and how the program was set up by state legislators. Advocates say they fear the expiration of the moratorium combined with the slow pace of aid could push people out of their homes, destabilizing families and worsening the pandemic.

In Allegheny County, more than 4,000 renters and 1,600 landlords have applied for the program as of Friday, but only 34 applications have been approved and paid out.

Cassandra “Cassa” Collinge, assistant director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, said the agency has been working with a number of nonprofit partners to get funds distributed as quickly as possible, and she anticipates more funds will flow in the coming weeks.

“We are very dedicated to making this resource available,” she said. The county received $22.5 million in federal aid for the program and added additional funds to supplement that aid.

Gov. Tom Wolf has declined to extend the moratorium expiring Monday, although he asked the legislature to do so in part because of the problems renters and landlords are encountering in obtaining aid. He has also asked legislators to make a number of changes to the program so that the $150 million in federal funds can reach those in need and keep them in their homes.

“We are not seeing the money starting to flow,” Allegheny County Administrative Judge Christine Ward, who oversees a number of housing court issues, said on Thursday.

Among the primary issues the governor highlighted as problematic: a $750 monthly cap on assistance that kept many landlords from taking part in the program.

As for other obstacles, The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency said in a July memo the requirement that households be 30 days in arrears to be eligible for assistance, as well as the required verification of an applicant’s unemployment through the Department of Labor & Industry, were among the barriers to distributing funds in a timely way.

Other bottlenecks to getting money to those in need: a complicated application process requiring both landlord and tenant to apply, reluctance by some landlords to participate or provide their bank information to receive direct deposit payments, and incomplete applications, said Kevin Quisenberry, an attorney and housing advocate who has been assisting tenants in navigating the application process.

“It’s incomplete applications. It’s landlords who are not saying yes. It’s lack of infrastructure, and that’s not anybody’s fault per se,” because the program had to become operational within weeks of it being created, said Mr. Quisenberry, litigation director for the Community Justice Project.

“Our owners have not felt inclined to participate given the constraints of the program,” said Leah Sailhamer, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, which represents larger landlords.

The $750 monthly cap on assistance is a barrier for landlords, she said, and her organization believes the program should be modified so property owners can receive up to 130% of what is considered fair market rent by federal housing standards. This would differ from one area of the state to another, but would average about $1,000 monthly.

“We haven’t had a lot of participation [in the program],” among residents or owners, she said.

Among other changes Ms. Sailhamer said legislators should consider if they want the program to be effective: change the rule that says applicants must be 30 days in arrears to allow those who have been paying the rent using their unemployment funds or savings to apply, and extend the deadline of the program beyond the current Sept. 30 cutoff.

Federal CARES funds must be spent by Nov. 30 under federal law, and the state legislation creating the program says all applications must be submitted for the program by the end of September.

“We need more time for this thing to work,” Mr. Quisenberry said.

Housing advocates have also asked local court officials to establish a local moratorium on eviction filings, hearings, and orders of possession until at least Nov. 30, with exceptions for health and safety threats.

“The spike in infections since summer began has shown us how precarious our County’s health situation remains. To halt the spread of this virus, people must be able to remain in their homes. Continued evictions will further enable the community spread of the virus. Those forced from their homes will be more likely to move about the community in their search for new housing and will often end up crowded into the homes of friends and family. This will directly expose many residents to the potential harms of the virus and will hinder the Allegheny County Health Department’s efforts to contain the outbreak,” a group of local advocates and legislators wrote in an Aug. 25 letter to Judge Ward and Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark.

Additionally, with Pittsburgh Public Schools and many other districts beginning the year remotely, evictions would severely interrupt the ability of a child to do schoolwork and learn, the advocates said.

To apply for rental assistance, visit http://phfa.org/pacares/rent.aspx or call 1-855-U-Are-Home (827-3466). Callers should listen for the prompt mentioning CARES assistance.

To apply for rental assistance in Allegheny County, visit https://covidrentrelief.alleghenycounty.us/ or call 412-248-0021.

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