Since May 2020, Philadelphia’s emergency rental assistance program has made nearly 40,000 payments to landlords and tenants, providing over $251 million in aid. This assistance is a lifeline to tens of thousands of families. Without it, many would have been evicted, ended up homeless, or had to make difficult decisions about putting food on the table vs. paying rent.
Unfortunately, because of a shortage of federal funds, Philadelphia’s program recently stopped accepting applications. It will be hard-pressed to serve all of those who have already applied.
Although the end of the program is unfortunate, to those of us working in housing in the city, it came as little surprise. We all knew that the programs set up to provide aid during COVID-19 were temporary, and the federal funds would run out. Now it’s time to use the lessons we learned to create something more permanent that can provide stability for renters and landlords.
It’s important to remember that Philadelphia’s (and America’s) housing instability crisis was not caused by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, over half of Philadelphia’s renters were “cost-burdened,” meaning they paid more than 30% of their income on rent. The city had over 19,000 evictions per year, according to the Reinvestment Fund, and research by my team shows that fewer than one in five households eligible for a Section 8 voucher actually has one.
“It’s important to remember that Philadelphia’s (and America’s) housing instability crisis was not caused by COVID-19.”
But during the pandemic, the federal government viewed our housing crisis as a disaster and Congress authorized historic amounts of aid to renters and landlords.
Jurisdictions ran their own programs, and there are a lot of great things to say about Philadelphia’s.
For one, Philadelphia created a lot of flexibility around the application process; instead of requiring tons of documentation, emergency rent relief allowed them to self-report their income. This lowered barriers to participation and reduced the administrative burden, which made the process more efficient.
Secondly, the program tried something new: It allowed some tenants to get cash directly when the assistance could not flow through the landlord. In some places, there is still no mechanism in place to provide assistance to tenants in the event that the city cannot obtain a response from a landlord, or the landlord refuses to enter the program. This isn’t ideal for programs that are meant to be fair, ensure access, and create housing stability, or fair. But in Philadelphia, any approved tenant got assistance; if their landlord said they didn’t want it, the cash went directly to tenants, who were free to use it on their existing unit or another one.
Finally, Philadelphia has a much-lauded eviction diversion program that connects at-risk tenants with housing counselors and requires the parties to either come to an agreement or attend a mediation. Until recently, the program also required landlords to apply for rental assistance to cure nonpayment issues — a powerful feature no longer possible due to these funds running out.
Philadelphia built the delivery infrastructure to process tens of thousands of rental assistance applications, including hiring and training staff, developing a complex software system, and working with a network of nonprofit partners. And it worked: Research that my team conducted with our partners showed that places like Philadelphia that embraced features like self-attestation of income to reduce administrative burden on tenants and landlords were able to get more relief dollars out the door.
Indeed, many states and counties have not spent their rental assistance funds as effectively as Philadelphia; as of November, only 58% of the first round of emergency rental assistance program funding has been expended nationwide.
I believe we need to take what worked during the emergency rent relief program and apply it to a new, permanent program that provides stable assistance for the city’s renters.
But to do that, we need more financial support. Proposals like the bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act could present an opportunity for a durable federal commitment. If it has to rely solely on local funds, Philadelphia can create a smaller-scale version that’s more prescribed and targeted about who it serves.
There was enormous need before the pandemic, and that need will persist without action. Philadelphia was a national leader in its COVID-19 housing aid programs, and now again has the chance to lead the nation by showing how a city can successfully pivot these programs and build a long-term approach for assisting renters and reducing evictions that is enduring, resilient, and compassionate.
Vincent Reina is a Stoneleigh Foundation fellow and the faculty director of the Housing Initiative at Penn.