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Inside Pa.'s coronavirus rent relief debacle


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Sarah Anne Hughes
February 15, 2021
Rent relief debacle, vaccine crackdown, Toomey's vote, later primary, juvenile lifers, Mexican merchants, fish fry, and Saint Dolly. Welcome to Monday.

To kick off the week, we have a detailed account of how Pennsylvania's first coronavirus rent relief program went so terribly wrong. Spotlight PA's own Charlotte Keith pored over thousands of emails obtained through the state's Right-to-Know Law to chronicle how the program was doomed from the start.

Despite a sputtering economy and record unemployment last year, the state failed to dole out $96 million of the $150 million it had allocated to renters, many of whom have lived day-to-day in fear of their mounting bills and the possibility of losing their home through eviction.

In August, a top official at the state agency in charge of the program lamented its problems, writing in an email obtained by Spotlight PA that it “continues to reveal new levels of dysfunction … like that long-lost alcoholic uncle.”

THE CONTEXT: Now, as Pennsylvania prepares to spend $848 million in federal funding on the second round of rent relief, thousands of tenants and landlords are hoping the state does a better job than last year. Though the new initiative still faces a host of challenges, it appears better positioned to succeed.

Advocates and housing officials said they are relieved to see that lawmakers added few restrictions to the new program beyond those in federal law.

This time around, there aren’t any hard-and-fast caps on the assistance. Tenants can receive the money directly if their landlords won’t participate. And federal law appears to allow applicants to certify a loss of income without providing extensive paperwork, though local and state governments are waiting for more guidance on this from the U.S. Treasury.

» If you learned something from today's edition, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can tomorrow.


"Now people realize we still have a lot of battles ahead of us. We’re not really sure how to fix them."

—Jamie Perrapato, executive director of the grassroots Democratic group Turn PA Blue, on the party's poor performance in 2020 and what comes next
VACCINE UPDATE: State health officials say they will weed out slow COVID-19 vaccine providers and limit distribution to hospitals, federally qualified health centers, county health departments, and pharmacies. Primary care providers say this is a bad idea. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
POST IT: Views of the Broad Street Market in Midtown, Harrisburg. Thanks for tagging us, @yatskoSend us your hidden gems (or snow pictures!), use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.

IN AGREEMENT: Both of Pennsylvania's U.S. senators — Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey — voted to convict President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, the Morning Call reports. Reacting to Toomey's decision, the state Republican Party said it shared the "disappointment of many of our grassroots leaders and volunteers."

POSSIBLE DELAY: The U.S. Census Bureau will not be able to deliver redistricting data until September, which may require the state to delay its 2022 primary, the Associated Press reports. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) said the timeline may not give would-be candidates enough time to decide on their plans and gather signatures. 

RELEASE: The last person from Erie County sentenced to life in prison without parole as a juvenile is now on a path to leave prison, the Erie-Times News reports. Across the state, in Montgomery County, the nation’s oldest juvenile lifer was released after serving 68 years

NO COMMENTS: Of the dozens of Republican state lawmakers who wanted to overturn Pennsylvania's electoral votes, just two agreed to speak to WITF about their thinking. “In my own introspection, I think, ‘What were my own sort of words and comments that I used from the day of the election forward, and when is speech insightful and when is speech inciting?'” one lawmaker told the outlet.  

OUTRAGE: Students, parents, and community members in Lower Moreland Township say they are frustrated and disappointed over the school district's handling of anti-Asian racist comments, WHYY reports. The district rejected requests from student organizers to speak at a recent board meeting.


SURVIVAL FUNDS: Facing a lack of financial support from the federal and state government, the Association of Mexican Business Owners in Philadelphia is raising money to help 12 small businesses survive. "The majority have not received federal funds, so this is how we are doing something for ourselves, working shoulder to shoulder," said Raúl Castro, president of the association.

TIS THE SEASON: As a former resident of Pittsburgh, I know we're in the midst of one of the most important times of the year for the western part of our state: Folks, it's fish fry season. The Post-Gazette has a map of where you can get your fish fix

CAMPING COMPANION: Facing increased demand for the great outdoors, the state will make more of its campsites pet-friendly in 2022. The pleasure of traveling with your furry friend will cost an extra $2 to $5.  

SAINT DOLLY: Kids in Pittsburgh received more than 50,000 free books last year, thanks to Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. You can see if the program is available in your area here.

A HARD LOOK: One of Spotlight PA's founding partners, The Philadelphia Inquirer, recently underwent a newsroom audit focused on diversity of the staff and stories. Spotlight PA is committed to improving our own coverage, including through our Diverse Source Database. If you know someone who should be added, nominate them here.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.
E L K O P S I O E A D C 

Friday's answer: Magnesium

Congrats to our weekly winner: Christopher R.

Congrats to our daily winners: Jessica K., Dixie S., Mary Ellen T., Neal W., Jill G., John C., Susan D., Carolyn T., Dennis M., George S., Dianne K., David I., Joel S., Yvette R., David B., David W., Carol D., Irene R., Kim C., Rick D., Karen W., Christine M., Suzanne S., Jason H., Ron P., and Lance L. 
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