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Thousands in limbo as Pa. mortgage relief stumbles

Plus, Berks GOP censures Rozzi's Republican backers.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Slow relief, pardon pickup, GOP censure, health risks, survivor stories, empty schools, and Philly's 'increasingly convoluted' cheesesteak rules.

A Pennsylvania program that promises to help homeowners recover from the financial impact of the pandemic is overwhelmed by demand and struggling to deliver relief to increasingly frustrated applicants. 

Pauletta Fajinmi applied for help from the Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund (PAHAF) in April, after her husband's COVID-19-related death left her shouldering more than $5,000 in late mortgage payments.

"It was a nightmare," she recalled to Spotlight PA.

The fund, backed by $350 million in federal aid, rolled out alongside the sunsetting of pandemic-era foreclosure protections, offering people a chance to catch up on mortgages, property taxes, utilities, and more.

Fajinmi's application was approved more than six months after she began the process. Thousands of others are still in limbo.

Read our full report: Pa. homeowners feel stuck in a high-stakes game of telephone with homes, vital utilities on the line.

THE CONTEXT: Wait times have depended on how responsive mortgage and utility companies are to PAHAF's requests for information.

Of the more than 6,000 applications that were in the final stage of approval in mid-December, the average wait time was six months-plus. 

Most applicants are not at risk of losing their homes in the interim — in most cases, federal rules require a pause in foreclosure proceedings once someone has applied — but water and electricity shut-offs have happened.

More than 20 applicants told Spotlight PA that their initial hope curdled into anxiety, fear, and exasperation amid poor communication from the program, unclear ground rules, and ballooning time frames. 

"This program is not what you promised and absolutely not what the applicants thought they were getting into," someone complained in an email to then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's office in October.


"I feel lighter. I feel like something righteous happened."

—Attorney and advocate Bridget Cambria on the closing of Berks County's contested migrant detention facility where she once worked as a guard
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» BROKEN BOROUGHS: Join us Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on Pennsylvania's local governments and how their oversight — or lack thereof — impacts residents and governance. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

Interesting clouds, via Ron R. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

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Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.PARDON PROJECT: Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's pre-inauguration interview with Al Día News touched on his support for a statewide ban on private prisons and saw him vow to expand a pardon program for low-level and nonviolent cannabis convictions started by his predecessor, Tom Wolf. Shapiro acknowledged the program's bumpy rollout and room for improvement around outreach and access.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.COMMITTEE CENSURE: The Berks County Republican Committee has voted unanimously to censure the Republican members of the Pennsylvania House who supported Rep. Mark Rozzi for the speakership, Reading Eagle (paywall) reports. Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, secured a crucial sliver of GOP support by vowing to serve as an independent, but the committee calls the deal a "betrayal." 

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.OFFICIAL WARNING: Federal officials are warning residents of Zelienople in Butler County of elevated cancer risks posed by a local medical sterilization company, WTAE reports. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the company, American Contract Systems, is emitting high levels of ethylene oxide that could lead to long-term illness. A virtual public meeting is set for Feb. 2

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.BRIDGE SURVIVORS: Saturday marks one year since Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, injuring nine people and prompting fresh scrutiny of Pennsylvania's aging infrastructure. TribLIVE spoke with survivors about their injuries and nightmares. "Though I am the same, I am forever changed because of that day," said Velva Perry, who was traveling across the 100-foot-high span when it gave way. 

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.ENROLLMENT PLUNGE: State education officials predict that Pittsburgh Public Schools — the state's second largest district — will have lost nearly 5,800 additional students by 2031-2032, with observers telling PublicSource that school closures and mergers are possible in response. As Axios Philadelphia noted in a June piece on statewide enrollment drops, school funding is tied to enrollment.
Support Spotlight PA's vital investigative and public service journalism.

SPECIAL REQUESTS: Special elections in Allegheny County's 32nd, 34th, and 35th state House districts are set for Feb. 7. Registered voters have until Jan. 31 to request absentee or mail ballots and until 8 p.m. on Feb. 7 to get them to the county's elections office. Here's what's at stake.

ELECTION BILLS: U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) has introduced longshot bills that would outline federal standards for voting by mail; require states to use independent commissions for redistricting; open primaries to independent voters; and require most in-person voters to present ID.

THE AFTERMATH: Some impacted homeowners are thinking about walking away from the mess left behind by a massive sinkhole that appeared near State College on Christmas Weekend. CDT (paywall) reports they're faced with insurance headaches and the bill for related engineering costs.

PHAMOUS PHIL: Punxsutawney Phil, ringleader of Pennsylvania's strangest holiday, will be inducted into the Meteorologist Hall of Fame the day before Groundhog Day (Feb. 2). The Hall of Fame belongs to the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center and Phil will be its last addition. 

FREE ADVICE: Take McSweeney's advice on the "increasingly convoluted rules for ordering a Philadelphia cheesesteak like a local" at your own risk. For example: "The cheese is 'whiz,' the rolls are 'cow caskets,' french fries are 'zoppity tate toots,' and the cashier is 'steak marm.'"

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. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Pachyderms 🐘

Congrats to our daily winners: Becky C., Susan D., Don H., Barbara F., Starr B., Jon W., Joel S., Susan N.-Z., Craig W., Wendy A., Elaine C., Dianne K., Bill S., Kim C., Dennis M., James B., Bill S., Myles M., Trudy W., Kimberly D., William Z., Jane R., and Vicki U.
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