After months of unemployment and underemployment, more people than ever are on the verge of losing the place they call home. The coronavirus pandemic has taken our friends, our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sons, and daughters. The coronavirus has taken the lives of our communities’ bus drivers, nurses, sanitation workers, grocery cashiers, teachers, and many, many more. The pandemic has taken so much from our commonwealth. But it doesn’t have to take our homes.
During the 2019-2020 legislative session, along with State Rep. Morgan Cephas (D., Phila.), we introduced key legislation to improve the state’s rent and mortgage relief program. The $175 million program was created by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to help residents suffering from financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds were there, but changes needed to be made to ensure the dollars got into the hands of people in need.
Our legislation, HB 2837, would have done that by fixing administrative and programmatic issues. For example, it would have based maximum rental assistance on 130% of a community’s HUD Fair Market Rent, rather than a flat $750 cap; allowed the program to function independently of verification through the Department of Labor’s already overtaxed unemployment compensation system; and reserved funds to go to small “mom-and-pop” landlords who, like many small-business owners, were also impacted by this economic upheaval. We were focused on eliminating red tape and getting help to Pennsylvanians.
Our legislation would have fixed this program and released funding to help thousands of struggling Pennsylvanians pay their rent or mortgage. Instead, they find themselves confronted with the threat of homelessness for the holidays. To call this a moral failure of government is an understatement.
Instead of fixing this program and helping thousands of Pennsylvanians, our Republican colleagues redirected federal relief funds to backfill the state corrections budget. Money that was intended for homeowners, renters, and small-business owners in your neighborhood never got to them.
Our bill was just one important part of a larger Safe At Home housing package we introduced last session to prevent some of the devastation that’s now unfolding across our state. The bills we introduced along with our colleagues would ensure people have access to qualified legal representation as they fight to keep their homes (former HB 2841), create a framework for payment plans to help renters address housing debt without losing everything (former HB 2838), and stop unfair eviction records from following families so they can find future housing (former HB 2382). The package also includes a vital state eviction and foreclosure moratorium bill, which one of us (Fiedler) is reintroducing with State Reps. Sara Innamorato (D., Allegheny) and Summer Lee (D., Allegheny).
This should not be a partisan issue. Republicans are the majority party in both the state House and Senate. They decide which bills are brought to a vote. In fact, House Republicans joined Democrats in October to sign off unanimously on a bill to expand the state’s rent relief program — but then their Senate colleagues refused to advance the legislation. They decided that heading into a dark winter during a pandemic, housing was not a priority. Yet, we all know that housing is a fundamental human need, and we know that during this pandemic, some of the richest people have gotten even richer, while many working people are now faced with unstable housing, insufficient food, and not enough money to pay their bills.
Rather than focusing on housing, education, food access, and small-business relief bills, some of our colleagues spent months questioning science and trying to cast doubt on an election that took place almost two months ago. This theater of the absurd does not serve the people of Pennsylvania. Working people, poor people, and the middle class are struggling to afford necessities; many people find themselves applying for unemployment for the first time after decades of working hard. For some people, housing instability is a new struggle that’s come with the pandemic. For many of our neighbors, the near-constant search for housing is a traumatic and exhausting way of life that comes with the high price of renting or buying a home, along with staggering amounts of medical debt and college debt.
Pennsylvania deserves leaders who will focus on getting them help now. Certainly, when the General Assembly returns to Harrisburg in January, getting relief to those who need it the most — frontline workers, essential workers, independent businesses, seniors, those who have lost employment, and renters and homeowners — should be priority No. 1.
Our state needs to step up, now, to get rent and mortgage relief to Pennsylvanians, and to pass the rest of our Safe At Home housing bills. For anyone on the edge of homelessness, this is obvious. Housing is a public health issue and a moral issue, and it must come along with other forms of assistance and support to get us all through this pandemic and beyond.
Austin Davis (D., Allegheny) and Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Phila.) are Pennsylvania state representatives.