State rental assistance program fix moves forward with bipartisan backing

    (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

    In a rare show of bipartisanship amid election year and pandemic-driven rancor, a plan to fix Pennsylvania’s troubled rental assistance program has moved forward in the Legislature.

    “It’s a good bill for the landlord, it’s a good bill for the tenant, and we had to protect both of them,”  House Urban Affairs Committee Chairwoman Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, said after her panel unanimously approved the proposal last week.

    If approved in their current form, the suite of changes would:

    • Allow landlords to set up a payment program for back rent, without any late fees or interest. A landlord who still waives the accrued rent is eligible for up to a $600 bonus.
    • Increase the maximum monthly assistance to renters from $750 a month — $165 less than the median Pennsylvania rent — to 130 percent of the fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in the applicant’s county.
    • Increase the maximum monthly assistance to mortgage holders from $1,000 to $1,500 a month.
    • Removes a qualification that renters must be 30 days behind on payments to receive assistance.
    • Makes it easier for renters to prove lost income from COVID-19.

    The $175 million relief effort was slow to get money in the hands of renters because landlords also needed to agree to the aid. As a condition of accepting the money, landlords could not evict the assisted tenant., And they had to waive debt accrued during the pandemic.

    The program began accepting applications on July 6. About $4 million in rental aid has been disbursed out of $70 million requested. The deadline for applications is Sept. 30.

    The changes largely match what Gov. Tom Wolf proposed in early September to fix the rental and mortgage assistance program.

    The fixes have the support of both landlord and tenant groups, including the state’s lobbying groups for realtors and apartment owners, as well as Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based low-income legal aid group.

    “These changes will allow renters and homeowners across Pennsylvania access to much needed assistance by removing the barriers preventing them from receiving that assistance right now,” CLS attorney Vik Patel said in a statement.

    These changes might not pass before the Sept. 30 application deadline lapses. In that case, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency  would continue to process pending applications, and close new applications until the final bill is signed by Wolf.

    A Census poll over the summer found that up to 18 percent of renters could be behind on payments. Altogether, 3.4 million people rent in Pennsylvania, or about one-fourth of state residents, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

    Wolf also has asked for the General Assembly to allocate another $100 million into the program, but the new funding was not present in the bill. 

    Republican legislative leadership instead has opted to sit on an extra $1 billion in unused federal stimulus dollars in hopes that Congressional action would allow for the money to patch state budget holes.

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