Darrell Brightful felt blessed and relieved when the city told him he was one of the lucky Philadelphians selected to receive help through its pandemic rental assistance program.
Brightful, a 52-year-old truck driver who works six days a week and helps support his 13-year-old daughter, hadn’t missed rent for his room in a Frankford house until he was furloughed in March. He got called back to work this week, but he is still fighting for unemployment benefits.
His relief turned out to be short-lived. His landlord refused to take the city’s money because of the strings attached.
“He doesn’t want to give up his right to evict. I’m saying, if I pay you, why would you want to evict?” Brightful said. “That didn’t make no sense to me. ... I made a way for you to get your money.”
Almost 13,000 households applied for the rental assistance program Philadelphia created to support tenants who lost income because of the pandemic. Of those, more than 10,200 met the program’s requirements. The city ran out of money — $10 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds — after pledging support for 4,000 households.
The city is randomly selecting tenants, who will get at least three months of rent — up to $2,500. The first rent payments go out this week. Pennsylvania’s eviction moratorium ends in less than a month, after which officials and advocates expect a flood of activity.
The city is asking for donations from residents and businesses to expand the rental assistance program.
Without more federal funds, the city is depending on donors, who have given more than $46,500. Cities across the country are doing the same to bolster the programs they created to help renters survive the economic fallout from the pandemic. Atlanta, for example, has received corporate contributions as well. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the states that started rental assistance programs meant to help both tenants and landlords.
“There’s tremendous need in Philadelphia and in cities all over the country,” said Gregory Heller, senior vice president for community investment at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. “We knew from the start we wouldn’t have nearly enough money to meet the demand that was out there.”
Tens of thousands of Philadelphia renters needed help before the pandemic hit, he said, which is why Mayor Jim Kenney announced in his March 5 budget address that the city planned to launch a rental assistance program.
Heller recalled a single mother of three who said in her program application that she can’t afford rent and that her family would soon be homeless.
“It’s just story after story like this,” said Heller, adding that some people briefly said they were furloughed or a gig worker whose work dried up, and others wrote in detail about their situations. “And when they do, it’s frequently heartbreaking.”
More than 6,500 eligible households that applied include children. Seven in 10 eligible applicants live in households of one, two, or three people. Of eligible applicants, about 62% pay roughly $500 per month in rent, and 31% pay about $1,000. The average April back rent is $1,051, and 46% of eligible households owe April or May rent, or both.
More than a quarter of eligible applicants live in five zip codes: 19149 in Northeast Philadelphia, 19143 in Southwest and West Philadelphia, 19124 in Northeast Philadelphia, 19134 in the Kensington area, and 19139 in West Philadelphia.
Many of Philadelphia’s struggling tenants were not eligible or didn’t know about the program, and even those who get assistance will most likely struggle to pay rent once the few months of help run out, said Tim Horras, a member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, who called the rental assistance program “just a Band-Aid on the gushing wound.”
“We encouraged people to apply just because it was a shot in the dark,” Horras said.
Some tenants found the application process difficult, said Judith Jones, vice president of the newly formed Philadelphia Tenant Support Organization, which splintered from the Philadelphia Tenants Union about a month ago. The new group’s mission is to focus on black, brown, immigrant, and low-income renters.
Tenants “had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get assistance,” Jones said.
Heller, of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., acknowledged that the program has a lot of strings attached because the city is using federal funds.
Like Brightful, some applicants were disqualified because their landlords did not cooperate. Landlords must not pursue evictions while receiving rental assistance for six months; waive late fees for back rent in April and May; and give tenants six months after the end of assistance to repay missed rent. Landlords also need to have a rental license and be current on city taxes.
Some applicants didn’t provide the right information and documents. Some dropped out of the process. City officials said they are directing applicants who were not selected to other resources. Following complaints that people did not know the status of their applications, the city now allows renters to check on the program’s website.
Households that earned 50% or less of area median income before the pandemic were eligible. That’s $48,300 for a household of four. Applicants had to submit proof of income, a current lease for an apartment or house in Philadelphia, a valid ID, and confirmation of loss of income. Renters were not eligible if they live in public housing; receive other rental assistance from the government, such as housing vouchers; owed back rent before April; or are in the process of being evicted.
The city hopes to offer more rental assistance with donated funds. The program’s roughly 100 donors have mostly been individuals giving what they can, including donations of $30 and $75 and those of $500 and $1,000.
“We just really appreciate all the generosity people have shown,” Heller said.