Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
Update, July 9: Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday announced eviction and foreclosure protections will be in place until Aug. 31.
HARRISBURG — With the end of the state’s moratorium on evictions looming large, a state-run relief effort to help renters pay their bills has gotten off to a rocky start, as many applications were incomplete and the forms were not available in Spanish.
The problems added to mounting pressure on Gov. Tom Wolf to extend the moratorium, which was instituted by the state Supreme Court in March and then extended by Wolf to protect those who could not make rent during the coronavirus shutdown.
In the two days since the $150 million rental assistance program began, some local organizations administering it have been flooded with applications. But most were incomplete, they said, delaying their ability to get money out the door.
Some tenants struggled to gather all the necessary paperwork, which includes several months of pay stubs, the organizations said. Other applicants didn’t realize their landlord needed to fill out two of the three required forms.
What’s more, a version of the application form in Spanish will not be available until the end of the week. The program, however, is doling out assistance on a first-come, first-served basis, which could put Spanish-speaking applicants at a disadvantage.
The moratorium expires Saturday, and there is increasing concern that little or no money will be available to tenants in time to guarantee that the eviction process — which typically takes several weeks — will not begin.
“Many tenants don’t know about this program and if they know, they won’t be able to apply, because they don’t have access in their language,” said Patty Torres, organizing director at Make the Road Pennsylvania, a Latinx advocacy group that is pushing for an extension of the eviction moratorium.
“We cannot expect that the governor makes an announcement and every renter hears about it,” she said. “We need more time.”
The program could be a lifeline for the thousands of tenants who have struggled to pay their rent as the coronavirus outbreak has shuttered businesses and caused record job losses. But advocates and Democratic lawmakers said it needs more time to get up and running to avoid a surge of eviction filings that could force people out of their homes.
Approximately 1.5 million people in Pennsylvania rent their homes, accounting for about 30% of all households. With each county receiving a limited amount of funding through the new program, some involved already expect there will not be enough to meet the anticipated demand.
Scott Elliott, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which is overseeing the program, said the department updated its website Monday to clarify that applicants must submit three separate forms and has moved “as quickly as we could to provide Spanish applications that are complete and accurate.”
The agency delayed posting the Spanish version of the application form to avoid paying for multiple translations as changes were made to the English version, Elliott said — a decision he emphasized was his alone.
“I don’t think anyone has been disadvantaged with this slight delay in producing translations for a program that runs six months,” he said.
Local organizations administering the program in each county said they would work with renters who submitted incomplete applications to help them gather the correct paperwork. The assistance payments, which go directly to landlords, can cover up to six months’ rent, with a monthly maximum of $750 per tenant.
To qualify, renters must show that since March 1, they either filed for unemployment or lost at least 30% of their annual income, which must not exceed the median in their county.
It’s not yet clear how long it will take each local organization to process applications and send out payments. Elliott said the timing could vary a lot from county to county.
In Chester County, only one of the 45 applications received so far has been complete, said Krystal Bentz, who is overseeing the rental assistance program for the county housing authority. “People just want to get the application in,” she said.
In York County, roughly 25 applications were submitted on Monday alone, but “less than a handful” were complete, said Carl Whitehill, director of marketing and communications at the Community Progress Council, which is administering the program locally. Most were missing the two forms that must be completed by landlords, he said.
Once the Spanish language form is available, “that will bring in a lot more applications, Whitehill said.
By Tuesday afternoon, Philadelphia had already received more than 600 completed applications, even though renters there have more time to seek assistance than in most of the state. City lawmakers voted to extend the eviction ban through the end of August, and passed legislation creating an eviction mediation program, forgiving late fees, and requiring landlords to offer payment plans to struggling tenants.
Those changes are now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, which argues that the new measures are unconstitutional and shift the financial burdens created by the coronavirus onto landlords, who are still required to make mortgage payments and pay property taxes.
The statewide rental assistance program is part of a $2.6 billion spending plan lawmakers passed at the end of May, funded by Pennsylvania’s share of the federal stimulus package. An additional $25 million is available for homeowners who need help making their mortgage payments.
The program’s early stumbles underscore the need to extend the eviction moratorium, housing advocates said. Last week, Senate Democrats wrote to Wolf seeking an extension through at least the end of August. On Tuesday, House Democrats urged an extension of the statewide moratorium through Dec. 31, giving renters “the time to apply for financial relief programs.”
And Wednesday morning, 50 community groups and housing advocacy organizations across the state wrote to Wolf, calling for an indefinite extension of the eviction moratorium “for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath,” as well as a rent freeze and deferrals of mortgage payments.
“As the statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire, thousands of poor and working class families are at risk of being unhoused, especially Black and brown families who already face much higher mortality rates from COVID-19,” they wrote.
Given the time crunch, they argue, the new rental assistance program launched “far too late” to help many of the people who need it. Among the elected officials signing in support was Eddie Moran, the mayor of Reading, which has one of the highest eviction rates in the state, according to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Asked at a news conference Monday whether he would extend the eviction moratorium, Wolf said he was “not ready to say anything.”
Torres, of Make the Road Pennsylvania, said waiting until the last minute would be a mistake.
“I think he should already have been doing this last week,” she said. “Tenants need to feel safe right now.”
If you need rental or mortgage assistance, visit phfa.org/pacares to learn more about the application process.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.