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This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
How do you spell r-e-l-i-e-f?
Thousands of renters across the region are anxiously awaiting an answer. But not this one. Gov. Tom Wolf declared that without more assistance, about 400,000 renters in the state, about 17 percent of the total renters, are “racing towards an eviction cliff.”
By January 2021, the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA), estimates the nation’s collective past-due rent bill will total $34 billion. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in July that 1 in 5 renters were behind in rent and that households of color were reporting the highest rates of missed payments.
Since the onset of COVID-19, there have been two types of protections put in place for them — one was a moratorium on evictions which stopped renters from being tossed out of their homes. And the other was financial support to help pay the bill.
Neither has proven to be a miracle cure.
Moratoriums temporarily forestall an eviction. In pre-COVID Philadelphia about 1,500 eviction were scheduled monthly. However, renters still accrue monthly rent debt which comes due as moratoriums are lifted. With record high unemployment, many renters are still unable to meet their payments.
On the other hand, government-backed rental assistance programs put money in the hands of landlords and decreases renters’ debt obligation, but the federal programs have proven to be of limited effectiveness because they are too difficult to use.
The $150 million CARES Rent Relief Program, enacted in May and administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) through county level agencies, has a process so “cumbersome” that in August almost 17,000 tenants applied for $32 million in relief but only 1,800 tenants were approved for total of $3.3 million dollars.
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That leaves 89% of the applicants still waiting.
While the program is not accepting new applications now, counties are continuing to review applications and will disburse funds until November 30.
Kayleigh Silver, senior manager of housing and homeless programs at Your Way Home, said their application process opened in July and just closed. At last count, 476 landlords had applied but only 168 had been accepted. In addition, 685 households had applied and 207 had been approved. The total given out in rental assistance was $563,189 but that was from a $2,625,000 allocation. Because of the cumbersome rules, Silver was only able to allocate about $1 out of every $5. The rest, if not spent, will be returned, she said.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks, said Silver, is the low payment level for landlords. Silver said fair market value for a one bedroom apartment in Montgomery County, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates, is $1,060.
“In my opinion that is still low,” Silver said.
Federal rent assistance is capped at $750 per month. Not only would landlords have to accept the $750 as full payment, despite it being a fraction owed to them, but they couldn’t evict tenants for 60 days after payment.
PHFA’s Bryce Maretzki, director of policy and planning, said, “To date only about 11% of the applications from renters have been approved for assistance (about $4M). The high rate of incomplete applications is primarily attributable to applicants not meeting various program requirements and needing additional documentation — especially documents showing greater than 30% loss of income related to COVID-19 — [as well as] the fact that tenants continued to make rent payments and the program requires at least 30 day delinquency.”
Your Way Home, which was created in 2014 as Montgomery County’s housing crisis response system for housing insecure people, used the county’s CARES money to create a more user-friendly rental assistance program.
“Because we saw the problem so early on in Montgomery County, we utilized a separate, complimentary program on September 14,” Silver said. The program is called Emergency Rent and Utility Coalition (ERUC) and instead of $750 it provides $1,500 per month in support which can be used for either back rent or utilities arrearages for up to six months. Money is paid to the landlord or utility company directly.
“We don’t have hard data because we are only a month into the program,” she added, “but we are seeing an easier approval process and more landlords are participating.”
Wolf is seeking improvements in the CARES Rent Relief Program and wants the legislature to provide more money for the beleaguered rental assistance program, including raising the $750 million monthly rent cap, eliminating the requirement that households be 30 days behind on rent and eliminating verification that applicants applied for unemployment compensation
With unemployment expected to remain high through 2021, the need for rental assistance is still as critical as it was at the onset of the pandemic. NCSHA estimates that by January 2021 up to 8.4 million renter households could experience an eviction filing.
But evictions not only create an immediate problem but bring with-it long-term impacts including:
- Landlords often refuse to rent to people with an eviction record.
- Frequent moving for children between the ages of 6 and 10 is associated with lower incomes later in life.
- Evictions may also increase the need for homeless shelters and other social services, with evicted individuals spending more time in the shelter.
- Renters living under the threat of eviction experience poorer self-reported health outcomes.
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