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A vital rental assistance program is riddled with problems as Pa. prepares to resume evictions

A Spotlight PA review found many landlords have refused to participate, and lawmakers have failed to take action despite warnings the program is failing.

James Pride needed help to pay rent on his Lebanon apartment. His landlord, Morgan Properties, told him it won’t take part in the state's rental assistance program.
James Pride needed help to pay rent on his Lebanon apartment. His landlord, Morgan Properties, told him it won’t take part in the state's rental assistance program.Read moreCheyenne Snow / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — It wasn’t until the summer, after leaving his job as a drug treatment counselor, that James Pride began to fall behind on rent. Pride, 61, has a chronic lung condition and the risk of getting sick at work was too high.

A state program to help people struggling to pay rent because of the coronavirus pandemic seemed like the lifeline he needed. The money wouldn’t cover all of his rent, but he hoped it would be enough to stave off an eviction filing.

Pride printed off the forms, filled them out, and left the ones his landlord needed to complete at the office of his residential complex in Lebanon. The next day, he said, he got a call from the property manager. His landlord — Morgan Properties, which describes itself as the largest apartment owner in Pennsylvania — was not taking part in the program.

“That just took the life out of me,” Pride said.

“We’re drowning and Morgan Properties is like, ‘We don’t care.’”

The company was not alone in its decision.

A Spotlight PA review found that Pennsylvania’s primary effort to help renters pay their bills and avoid losing their homes was severely flawed from the start. As a result, many tenants across the state have been left in a perilous position as the statewide ban on evictions is set to expire.

So many landlords have refused to take part in the rental assistance program that the state agency overseeing it has been calling for sweeping changes ever since it launched in early July. Despite those requests, the legislature — largely on summer break — has not fixed it.

Renters cannot get aid without their landlord’s participation and the amount each applicant can receive is capped at $750 per month. In some parts of the state, that’s not enough to cover even half of someone’s rent, and landlords cannot ask renters to make up the difference.

If landlords take the money, they can’t file for eviction until at least 60 days after the last payment. As a result, many decided the program wasn’t worth it.

In Philadelphia, for instance, two-thirds of the more than 10,000 applications submitted so far cannot move forward because they come from tenants whose landlords will not participate.

Even when landlords do agree to take part, a convoluted application process and burdensome paperwork requirements mean that many applications arrive incomplete and can take weeks to finalize. The money is being paid out so slowly that some local officials worry they won’t have enough applications by the Sept. 30 deadline to use up all the funding allocated.

“The challenges that were built into the program administratively, from the legislation, have made it really hard to drive out the level of assistance we had initially expected,” said Bryce Maretzki, director of policy and planning at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The failures of the rental assistance program took on new urgency Monday when Gov. Tom Wolf — in a surprise move — said he does not have the legal authority to extend the eviction ban for a third time. That means the current moratorium will expire Aug. 31.

Housing advocates warn that the end of the ban will bring a wave of evictions that will jeopardize public health, displace families at the start of a new school year, and risk leaving thousands of people homeless, with communities of color hit the hardest.

Almost 400,000 households in Pennsylvania were not able to pay rent during the third week of July, data from a Census Bureau survey show. An estimated 15% of tenants had “no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent. Some tenants are already receiving letters warning them they will face eviction come September.

On Monday, Wolf said the rental assistance program has “serious defects” and urged lawmakers to address them immediately. The legislature has been largely absent from Harrisburg since mid-July and isn’t expected to fully reconvene until September.

“It hasn’t been working,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia), who helped write the legislation that created the program. “Some people have gotten help, a lot of folks have not, and so we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and try to come up with something better.”

Pride said he was eventually able to get financial help from a local community organization, which covered almost one month’s rent. The state program, by contrast, would have provided six months of assistance. With a maximum of $750 available per month, though, it would have covered only about 60% of his rent.

From a business perspective, Pride said, he could understand his landlord’s decision.

“But in these times, I don’t agree with it,” he added. “Everyone has to give a little for all of us to survive this and they’re giving nothing.”

Morgan Properties, which is headquartered in King of Prussia and owns more than 50 apartment complexes across the state, declined to comment.

In May, the company announced it would donate $5 for every on-time rental payment to local hospitals and food banks. “The goal is simple: to help those most in need,” said one email to tenants.

“I thought that was crazy,” Pride said. “Like, why wouldn’t you try to help the tenants that are here?”

Flawed from the start

The rental assistance program, funded with $150 million Pennsylvania received from the federal CARES Act, was meant to be a win-win for landlords and tenants.

Landlords would be able to recoup some of the income they had lost as tenants struggled to pay rent. Tenants would be spared the trauma of being evicted during a pandemic, at a time when business shutdowns to slow the spread of the virus have caused unemployment to skyrocket.

With limited funding available, lawmakers decided to cap the amount each applicant could receive. The $750 figure was calculated by using a federal formula to determine the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment and then reducing it by about 10%, according to a legislative source familiar with the process.

But the $750 cap failed to take into account regional variations in rent, giving landlords in some parts of the state little incentive to participate. The program’s rules say landlords who accept assistance payments must waive their right to collect the rest of the rent, even if the state aid doesn’t cover the full amount.

As a result, taking part in the program would require many landlords to take a major loss, said Rita Dallago, executive director of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association, which represents more than 7,000 landlords across the state.

“We really thought that it was going to help the tenants cover a major part, if not all, of their rent, but as it’s written that is not the case,” she said.

Staff at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which is overseeing the program, knew there were problems almost immediately.

Just three days after the program began taking applications, executive director Robin Wiessmann noted in a memo, sent to legislative leaders in both chambers, that the underlying law “significantly limits timely, effective implementation … and precludes the legislatively approved assistance from having the impact that is intended.”

In Lancaster County, about 65% of applicants pay more than $750 in rent each month, and landlords refusing to take part is “an everyday problem,” said Matthew Sternberg, executive director of the county redevelopment authority, which is processing applications locally.

“There’s a possibility that a good amount of funding will end up getting left on the table unless some of these issues are fixed,” he said.

Another problem: The funding formula doesn't take into account household size, putting families with children at a disadvantage.

Dianne Washington lives in Lancaster with her two children, ages 10 and 4. She’s waiting to hear about her application. Even with a three-bedroom apartment, she qualifies for only $750 in assistance — the same amount she would receive if she lived alone in a smaller apartment.

After the virus struck, her hours as a cook at a nursing home were cut and the hotel where she worked part time as a bartender closed, she said. Washington said she has been paying what she can each month but keeps racking up late fees that make it difficult to catch up.

She lets other bills slide to focus on keeping up with the rent, she said, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Overwhelmed with paperwork, left in limbo

The lack of landlord participation isn’t the only problem with the rental assistance program. Tenants also have to contend with a complicated application process, onerous documentation requirements, and the inevitable bureaucratic hiccups of a program rolled out in a hurry.

In an effort to make sure that assistance payments went to those most in need, the legislation contains strict eligibility criteria. To qualify, renters must have filed for unemployment since March 1, or have lost more than 30% of their income — documented with pay stubs and tax returns. They also can’t earn more than the median income for their county.

“Getting all the paperwork, making sure that folks qualify, just the constant back-and-forth takes up a great deal of time,” said Jessica Hajek-Bates, a director at Blueprints, the local group processing applications in Washington County.

The organization has received almost 200 applications so far. But only about 30% of those have been approved or denied, she said. Most are still in administrative limbo, as staff work with applicants to verify their eligibility, collect the right documents, and make sure all the details match up.

In Philadelphia, the combination of low landlord participation and the challenge of standing up a new program so quickly has created serious delays. Almost two months in, no money has actually been paid out.

The first payments should go out within the next two weeks, said Gregory Heller, senior vice president of community development at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. That means the money may not start flowing until after the eviction ban has lifted. The agency hopes landlords who have applications pending will hold off on filing for eviction, Heller said.

Tiesha Edwards, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, is counting on the assistance payments to be able to stay in her apartment. Edwards, 35, said she fell behind on rent after she lost her job as a home health aide in April. She gave up a part-time job as a Lyft driver, scared of bringing the virus home to her 2-year-old.

Edwards said she applied for the program in early July, the day after it launched, and has been waiting to hear something for almost two months.

“Sometimes I just feel like shutting down from everybody,” she said. “I don’t know when there’s ever going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Calls for improvements too late for some

In light of the program’s shortcomings, the governor is calling for major changes.

Among them: eliminating the $750 cap in favor of a more flexible standard that would vary from region to region; scrapping a requirement that tenants must be at least 30 days behind on rent to qualify; and allowing landlords and tenants to enter into payment plans for any rent still owed, as well as giving landlords and tenants more time to apply.

“Without these urgently needed changes, payment assistance is not reaching residents who badly need it and these funds will ultimately be returned to the federal government at the end of the year,” Wolf wrote in a letter to lawmakers Monday.

A temporary, statewide ban on evictions has been in place since March, the result of a state Supreme Court order and Wolf's executive actions. On Monday, Wolf said he did not have the legal authority to extend the ban further but urged the Republican-controlled legislature to act immediately to continue the eviction protections.

In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the House Republican majority criticized Wolf for “passing the buck” to lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) slammed Wolf’s “about-face” on the issue, saying it was the first time his caucus had heard about the need for emergency legislation. (A spokesperson for Wolf said Monday was not the first time the governor had raised this issue with members of the legislature.)

Both left open the possibility of extending the eviction protections, though time is running out.

Sen. Joe Pittman (R., Indiana), the chair of the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee, said he was “well aware” of the issues with the rental assistance program and had spoken to staff at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency about legislative changes in July.

A hearing on the issue originally set for Aug. 12 had to be rescheduled for early September, he said. Asked whether that would come too late, Pittman said making changes to the program “was not characterized as a tie-in to the moratorium.”

In Allegheny County, local officials realized “almost immediately” that the state assistance wouldn’t be enough, said Lance Chimka, the county’s director of economic development.

On top of the $750 in rental assistance available through the state program, the county is offering another $750, paid for by CARES Act funding the county received directly from the federal government, plus an additional $200 to cover utilities, court costs, or late fees.

The extra funding wasn’t enough to convince every landlord, though.

One tenant, who lives in a Morgan Properties apartment complex in Allegheny County and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said she had been told by several employees that the company was not taking part in the program.

She received a 30-day eviction notice at the end of July.

She was taken aback to hear that Allegheny County was offering extra funding — enough to cover her entire monthly rent.

“It just defies all logic to me,” she said.

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