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Everything you need to know to vote in November

Plus, finding the holes in Pa.’s $1B eviction safety net.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

October 21, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Election guides, eviction gaps, tax breaks, progressive pitch, tainted water, ongoing crisis, census rebellion, secretive search, and gun fights.
Election Day is weeks away and Spotlight PA has a full guide to everything you need to know to vote Nov. 2 (or before!), including key dates, polling locations, and how to learn more about what's on your ballot. 

There's still time left (five days, to be exact) to request a mail ballot. There's also time to confirm your polling place.

As for the contests: Voters statewide — regardless of party affiliation — will elect a new Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice and judges at all levels of the judicial system. 

Danielle Ohl has a full guide to these crucial races, while Ethan Edward Coston has a walkthrough on vetting local school board candidates and their donors amid misinformation-heavy campaigns.

And finally, Charlotte Keith reports on the tenants slipping through Pennsylvania's $1 billion eviction safety net

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, an unprecedented amount of relief money has kept a feared eviction wave at bay.

But across Pennsylvania's 67 counties, each with its own rental assistance program, the rules vary and the results are wildly uneven.

Meanwhile, affordable housing shortages remain a pressing issue. Keep reading for the latest on Pennsylvania's $10 million effort to create new affordable homes.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"I don't see that cycle ending. We're just putting out these fires." 

—Rhonda Mays, of Fair Housing Council of the Capital Region, on a lack of coordination that's slowing pandemic-era eviction relief in Pennsylvania
COVID-19 UPDATES: A final decision on vaccines for children age 5 to 11 could happen in the first days of November; Pennsylvania employers are still turning down applicants with criminal records despite the labor shortage; a mix-and-match approach for booster shots is likely; and Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court heard arguments for and against the state's school mask rule this week.
» COVID-19 INFO: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

» Spotlight PA wins two national investigative journalism awards

Pa. puts $10M behind increasing affordable housing

Pennsylvania is preparing to deploy $10 million in tax credits aimed at incentivizing investors to build affordable housing, a down payment on what supporters hope will be a powerful tool to address the state's pressing need for more homes and apartments.

Signed into law last November, the Pennsylvania Housing Tax Credit is modeled after a decades-old federal program. Eighteen other states plus Washington, D.C., have adopted their own self-funded version. Developers who successfully apply for the credit can sell it to investors, who can then finance affordable housing projects in return for money off their tax bill.

This summer, as part of the budget package, the legislature earmarked $10 million for the program — a pleasant surprise to the senator who originally sponsored the initial legislation.

"No, you're not going to stop all the problems with it, but it's a start," said former state Sen. Tom Killion, a Republican who represented Delaware and Chester Counties from 2016 to 2020.

Pennsylvania's need for affordable housing is growing. The median rent has increased about 20% statewide since 2000, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency reported in May 2020, while the number of rental units available for $600 a month or less shrunk 25% during that period. Housing stock in Pennsylvania is older as well: The median age of a residential building in the state is 59 years old, older than the median in every state except Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.

The pandemic has only exacerbated rental housing costs nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the cost of rent overall is up, according to data from Apartment List, a company that researches rental prices.

Building affordable housing from scratch, or even renovating outdated units, costs millions of dollars per project, often requiring developers to seek many different funding sources for a single development.

"It's a real art," Killion said. "Pennsylvania has a finance agency, they do a really good job and make sure the projects that get money are the ones that will do it right."

That agency, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, uses money generated from investments and fees to help build affordable housing in the state and support homeownership. 

Robin Wiessmann, executive director of the PHFA, said the credit will go primarily toward meeting the state's "overwhelming need" for affordable housing. The agency will likely start accepting applications next year, she said, to line up with the next cycle of federal funding.

The program funding also surprised Weissman, who had "no expectation" the legislature would prioritize money for the tax credit this year over other state programs.

PHFA staff are in the process of writing the parameters for the program. Wiessmann said the program will probably support projects that are most likely to secure all the needed funding.

Killion lost reelection in 2020, so he will not be able to advocate for the program during the next budget discussions.

"The budget is a negotiation," he said, "so I'm hoping someone will be in there fighting for money for affordable housing."

Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

END RUN: Progressive state Rep. Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) is running to replace retiring Pittsburgh Democrat Mike Doyle in Congress, WESA reports. The New York Times called Doyle's pre-midterms departure a worrying sign for the party, but progressives see an opening. Among those cheering on Lee's bid: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.).

WATER WOES: Five years after Pittsburghers learned the city's water was poisoned with lead at levels last seen in Flint, Michigan, a new PublicSource series traces the roots of Pittsburgh's water crisis back decades — touching on "unethical and illegal deeds," privatization perils, ongoing risks, and the political moves behind the debacle.

JAILBREAKS: Log entries from inside a Philadelphia prison, obtained by The Inquirer, describe the runup to what officials say was a riot involving almost 90 incarcerated men who broke out of their cells and took over a housing unit. It's the latest in a series of disturbances inside city jails this year and, the paper says, a "manifestation of an ongoing crisis."

HEAD COUNTS: State College and other higher-ed towns plan to challenge the results of the 2020 census, claiming they were shortchanged because of the pandemic. According to the Associated Press, State College officials believe the census missed up to 5,800 people when the pandemic drove students away just as counting began.

SECRET SEARCH: Republican state senators leading a contested review of Pennsylvania's 2020 election promised a transparent, public-facing process. But Capital-Star reports the search for a private vendor to vet millions of commonwealth voters is happening behind closed doors, with state law allowing plenty of room for secrecy.

» AP: Pa. high court opens door for Harrisburg gun law challenges

» KDKA-TV: Probe follows Pa. man's death in police custody

» MORNING CALL: Media, GOP target 'impenetrable' Pa. health law 

» WESA: Academics warn of 'catastrophe in the making' for Pa. forests

» YDR: York Co. officials backtrack on embattled prison contractor deal
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

TIME WARP (Case No. 115)What is significant about 3,661 seconds past midnight on the first of January 2001?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The farmer has 3 sheep, 2 goats, 1 horse. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Ryan S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Brian S., Lynda G., Fred O., Michael H., Dennis P., Elizabeth W., Jeffrey F., Philip C., Ken S., Robert K., Edward F., George S., Mary B., Cris F., Eileen D., Beth T., Joe S., Parker B., Jon N., and James D.
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