As clock ticks down, problems plague Pa. rental assistance program

Housing advocates stage a demonstration outside a press conference held by Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

The Keystone State has a big job for the month of September: allocating more than $140 million in federal funds that lawmakers have set aside to help Pennsylvanians pay rent and mortgage.

There’s no shortage of demand for the money in Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 housing assistance program, which was intended to keep rent and mortgage payments flowing during a period of record-high unemployment. 

But lawmakers have not laid out a timeline for fixing the program as its Sept. 30 deadline approaches, even though it’s done little to help landlords or tenants since it launched in July with a $150 million budget.

Members of the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee said Tuesday that they don’t want to forfeit the funds. But that’s what they might have to do under the terms of the congressional CARES Act, which requires aid to be remitted to the federal treasury if it isn’t spent by the end of the year.

Housing advocates, meanwhile, warn that tenants could face eviction this winter if the Legislature doesn’t fix the program’s glaring problems. 

The Housing and Urban Affairs Committee heard from some of those stakeholders during a public hearing on Tuesday, the first day the Senate resumed session after a two-month summer recess. 

Here’s what they learned.

The program has received more than $30 million in requests for rental assistance. But it’s given out barely $3 million.

As of Aug. 31, more than 16,000 Pennsylvania tenants had submitted applications requesting a cumulative $30 million in rental assistance requests, Robin Wiessmann, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, told the committee Tuesday. 

Even so, the program has disbursed just $3.33 million in aid, Wiessmann said. 

It’s spent even less on mortgage assistance. 

PHFA has received more than 2,100 applications from people seeking help with mortgage payments, Wiessmann said. But only 294 have been approved, since many applications were incomplete or blamed non-payments on financial hardship that wasn’t related to COVID-19. 

In all, the program has spent between $4 million and $5 million of its $150 million budget, Wiessmann said.

Landlords and tenant associations agree that the benefits must be more generous

Wiessmann explained that some applications are rejected because applications need buy-in from landlords and mortgage holders, who can choose not to participate in the program due to burdensome paperwork and technicalities. 

The rental assistance program, for instance, provides a maximum allowance of $750 per month to tenants. That’s not enough to cover rent in most parts of the state, Wiessmann said. And landlords often spurn the program because they’re not allowed to collect the difference from tenants.

That’s why landlords say they’d also like to see a larger allowance. They’re calling on the Legislature to adopt a weighted formula based on federal guidelines that determine eligibility for low-income housing.  

That would effectively increase the allowance cap, which “is going to be so much more attractive to our members,” said Leah Sailhamer, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Apartment Association. “Our rents are much more than $750.”

Demand is expected to grow this month

Wiessmann said housing agencies will continue to process applications from housing assistance this month. But she urged lawmakers to extend the Sept. 30 deadline they initially imposed on the program, and to give tenants at least until the end of October to collect assistance. 

That’s one of the tweaks proposed in a bill from Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, which is currently awaiting a vote in the chamber’s Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. 

Gov. Tom Wolf renewed his calls on Tuesday for lawmakers to fast-track their changes to the rental assistance program, saying that tenants would be left vulnerable once a federal order prohibiting evictions expires on Dec. 31. 

Wiessmann said hardships could emerge much sooner, since she expects requests for rental assistance to continue to pile up in September. 

She said that 440,000 tenants are projected to have difficulty paying rent in September, though figures from a census survey put that figure closer to 381,000 tenants as of July. 

Sailhamer said that landlords also expect that collections will come up short this month, since a federal stimulus that provided a supplemental $600 in jobless benefits will expire this month.

“Our concern is going forward, once that stimulus money runs out, is that our residents have to worry about paying their rent or paying [other bills,]” Sailhamer said. 

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