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HARRISBURG — The mother sat in the waiting area, wiping tears off her face.
Her September eviction hearing had ended in a “pay and stay” judgment, giving her at least 21 days to pay the more than $1,000 she owed in rent and court costs. If she didn’t, she and her two young sons could be removed from the apartment that had been their home for the past three years.
In the local courtroom in Dauphin County, the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her family’s privacy, told the judge she had applied for rental assistance, shushing one of the boys as he squirmed in her arms.
“Hopefully they’ll be in touch,” the judge replied, slightly muffled behind a plastic screen.
It was her third eviction case since the start of the pandemic — except that now, there was no federal moratorium to protect her. Even with the promise of money to catch up and a property manager who seemed willing to wait, she felt overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty.
The judgment started the countdown to the day they could be evicted.
What if the rental assistance didn’t arrive in time? She’d already had one problem with her paperwork. What if it didn’t arrive at all?
Her boys, wearing matching “Baby Yoda” T-shirts, chased each other across the room and played with the water fountain. For a moment, she hunched over in the chair and covered her face with her hands.
Nearly two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on evicting tenants who couldn’t pay rent because of the pandemic, a long-feared surge of people losing their homes has so far been kept at bay by an unprecedented amount of federal money to make landlords whole.
Pennsylvania was given more than $1 billion in federal rent and utility relief, enough funding, by some estimates, to cover all the rental debt that has piled up since COVID-19 hit. The assistance has prevented many evictions from being filed altogether, and offers tenants who do end up in court a lifeline that’s not usually there — if they know about it.
But across Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, each running its own rental assistance program, the rules vary and the results are wildly uneven. Many people are still unaware that help is available, and in most counties, local judges who hear eviction cases are under no obligation to delay proceedings if someone has submitted an application but is waiting for the county to process it.
There is evidence that when courts and rental assistance programs work together, it can benefit both landlords and tenants.
In Philadelphia, landlords must apply for rental assistance and go through mediation before they can even file an eviction case. This allows many tenants to avoid having an eviction filing on their record — a scarlet letter that can make it harder to find housing in the future.
And by guiding people toward financial help, the city makes it less likely that tenants will fall through the cracks in the safety net. The system has been so successful that Philadelphia has spent more of its rent relief funding than almost anywhere else in the U.S. and is in danger of running out of money.
In most of Pennsylvania, though, there are no formal rules to protect tenants from ending up in court during the often months-long wait for assistance.
To get a better sense of how the eviction process was playing out in the rest of the state, Spotlight PA spent a week in local courtrooms in Dauphin County — which had the highest rate of eviction filings in Pennsylvania in 2019, before the pandemic arrived — and interviewed more than a dozen tenants, local judges, and assistance coordinators.
The county received $18 million to help and had spent roughly half as of Oct. 15, but with almost 2,900 applications somewhere in the pipeline, it can take months to receive assistance and many tenants have eviction hearings scheduled in the meantime. When that happens, tenants are mostly on the losing end: Landlords win roughly 70% of cases, state data shows.
Dauphin County wanted to require judges to delay eviction hearings for tenants who were in the queue for rental assistance, but the state Supreme Court denied its request with no explanation — despite previously approving almost identically worded requests from Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
Once a tenant receives a judgment against them, they can move to the front of the line for rental assistance. But, with no official coordination between the courts and the rental assistance program, the onus is mostly on tenants to tell program administrators that the clock is ticking.
“It’s kind of like the dog chasing its tail,” said Rhonda Mays, director of finance at the Fair Housing Council of the Capital Region, one of the nonprofits running the program in Dauphin County.
Caseworkers will expedite an application from someone who is about to be evicted, delaying work on other applications until an eviction looms, in turn, for those tenants.
“I don’t see that cycle ending,” May said. “We’re just putting out these fires.”
‘People aren’t applying’
Alan Olivares didn’t start his application for assistance until after his hearing. Olivares, 60, lost his job as a cook at a Camp Hill restaurant early in the pandemic, but said he’d mostly been able to use his savings to pay rent and was worried about taking the money away from someone who might need it more. The judge issued a pay and stay judgment for the $2,043 Olivares owed — making him a candidate for his application to be fast-tracked.
Sometimes, it comes down to the wire. Two property managers recently said in court they’d received checks on behalf of tenants the same day that a lockout, the final stage in the eviction process, was scheduled.
Magisterial district judges can postpone individual cases whenever they think it’s necessary, even without a local order compelling them to do so. But one local judge, who asked not to be named, said he wouldn’t reschedule cases when people were waiting for assistance, because it would effectively double the number of eviction cases coming through his courtroom.
“My time is valuable, too,” he said.
Magisterial District Judge Kenneth Lenker said the triage system was working, reassuring one tenant who owed more than $15,000 and received a pay and stay judgment: “Everyone who’s coming through here with landlords has been getting paid.”
Magisterial District Judge David Judy said he would be willing to postpone eviction cases if someone could show they had applied for assistance —– but that hadn’t happened yet.
“Most people that come in here have not done anything, landlord or tenant, as far as applying,” he said.
One morning in September, Judy granted a pay and stay judgment against Tyler Gentry, who was $900 behind on the rent for his lot in a mobile home park. Gentry told the judge he had only worked two weeks since June. “I just financially wasn’t able to pay,” he said.
“You know, there’s a lot of money out there people can apply for, but people aren’t applying,” Judy remarked.
Standing in the courthouse parking lot, Gentry, 32, said he had called to ask about rental assistance but it felt “kind of pointless.” He didn’t know if he’d tried the right agency, he was just back to work and unsure if his income would still qualify, and a five-month wait for unemployment benefits had soured him on government aid programs.
Landlords sometimes forego hundreds or thousands of dollars of rental assistance, even when their tenants are eligible. Some don’t want to renew a tenant’s lease if they have a track record of late payments. In other cases, relationships have frayed over the course of the pandemic.
Elizabeth Bonner, another tenant with a case in front of Judy that morning, told him that her landlord had already received some money from the rent relief program. She later explained that she didn’t ask for as many months of assistance payments as she could have and fell behind again. Her landlord now appeared to be done waiting and wasn’t asking for a pay and stay.
Under the judge’s ruling, Bonner would have to be out of the house in Middletown by the second week of October.
She wanted to leave eventually, anyway: The porch roof leaked, the refrigerator was unreliable, and the kitchen floor was starting to crumble, she said. Bonner was planning to stay in a hotel while saving for a new apartment near the Amazon warehouse where she works nights.
“I did freak out for a minute, but there’s nothing I can do,” she said, as she scrolled through apartment listings on Facebook, pausing on one where she could afford the rent but not the $2,500 total required to move in. “I can’t freak out about something I can’t control.”
New help, old problems
On a recent Wednesday in Judge Hanif Johnson’s courtroom, the subject of rental assistance rarely came up, but the frustrations of finding somewhere to live in a city with a shortage of affordable housing were clear.
One man said his landlord had called the police after an argument over how much rent he owed. “I don’t need that kind of drama in my life,” the landlord told the judge.
The sound of raised voices drifted in from the reception area, where two sides were hammering out a deal in another eviction case, until someone asked them to take it outside.
Another landlord said he would forgive his tenants the five straight months of rent they hadn’t paid just to have the property back.
“We have no problem paying, but it’s the way he talks to us,” one of his tenants protested.
A woman said she hadn’t paid rent because she’d been staying in motels and shelters to avoid a violent family member. She had brought the rental assistance application form with her to court, but hadn’t filled it out yet.
Even with so much money available to prevent evictions, stable housing remains elusive for some in a rental market where costs have risen sharply.
Harrisburg rents have increased, on average, 27% since September 2019, according to data from Apartment List, a rental listing website — the biggest jump among the seven Pennsylvania cities tracked.
Even before the pandemic, the city faced a shortage of affordable housing. Between 2014 and 2018, 85% of “extremely low-income” renters — those making less than $22,569 a year — spent more than a third of their monthly income on rent, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
The Harrisburg-Carlisle metro area would need almost 10,900 more affordable units in order to meet the needs of extremely low-income renters, the research found.
On a recent Thursday morning, three Harrisburg residents with cases before Judge David O’Leary agreed to move because they had been living in buildings deemed unfit for human habitation by the city.
“It’s cool for them to rent me a house I can’t live in?” one man asked, incredulous.
Toby Soha-Bortner was evicted from the room he rented in Harrisburg in late August, after Dauphin County denied his application for rental assistance. According to Soha-Bortner, a caseworker told him that because he relied on Social Security benefits to pay rent, he didn’t meet the requirement that applicants show they have experienced financial hardship “directly or indirectly” due to COVID-19.
(Brett Hambright, a Dauphin County spokesperson, said he could not comment on specific applicants.)
Making rent was a struggle long before the pandemic, said Soha-Bortner, 23. After paying his bills, he’d generally have less than $100 left. He tried to save money by collecting spare change in a plastic water jug but usually ended up tipping it over and shaking the coins out to cover basic living expenses.
He’d been homeless for several years, pitching a tent in the wooded area behind the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation building. He often asked for money in local Facebook groups, or on GoFundMe: “Toby and Paul need desperate help with their rent”; “Help Toby and Paul move into a better room”; “Does anyone else worry about going homeless on a daily basis?”
Over the summer, after Paul, Soha-Bortner’s roommate, lost his job and fell several weeks behind on rent, and Soha-Bortner got into an argument with the property manager, the pair were told to leave, both men said. There was no court filing and no eviction hearing; tenants in rooming houses fall into a gray area between the state’s landlord-tenant laws and those covering hotels.
“I thought there would be a lot more steps,” Soha-Bortner said. Instead, they moved out that night, taking whatever they could carry to a motel room and leaving clothes, furniture, and cooking utensils behind.
About a week earlier, they had asked for an application form for another rental assistance program, he said. It arrived in the mail the same day they had to leave.
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