COVID-19: Officials Urge PA Renters to Make Use of Renewed Assistance Program

State officials gather on a WebEx call for a press briefing on the new rental relief program on April 12.

State and local officials urged Pennsylvanians behind on rent payments to apply for relief through a new rental program at a virtual briefing held on April 12.

Pennsylvania’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program will distribute a total of $847 million to renters on a first-come-first serve basis, PA Department of Human Services secretary Teresa Miller said at the briefing.

“Pennsylvanians should know that this program is deliberately designed to help people dig out of what may be some very deep holes,” Miller said.

To receive the relief, households must be renting, not owning; have experienced financial hardship, or qualified for unemployment due to the pandemic; be at risk of homelessness; and have an income at or below 80% of the median for the area they live in.

Statewide, information about the program can be found through Compass, the state’s benefit portal, and on the PA DHS website. Philadelphians to go to the city’s rental assistance website or call 311 for information about how to apply.

Funding comes mostly from federal dollars apportioned from the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed by Congress in December, which provided funds for state governments to establish individual ERAPs.

The program represents the second major effort from the state legislature to offer relief to Pennsylvanians threatened by eviction with federal funds, and by far the more expansive. The first, funded through the CARES Act, distributed $54 million to around 10,000 households in 2020, according to Sen. Pat Browne, who was also in attendance at the briefing.

This round of funding also has different stipulations. The first program required most distribution of relief to be handled through landlords and placed stricter guidelines on how the money could be used; for example, landlords who accepted relief for their tenants, which came in flat $750 monthly disbursements, would be barred from collecting any amount not covered by that amount.

Those conditions caused delays in getting the money out to renters, Spotlight PA reported. Browne, whose district encompasses much of the Lehigh County north of Philadelphia, said the legislation for the new program had been crafted with flexibility in mind.

“Part of the challenge in the past was there were stipulations coming from a facilitator in Harrisburg as to priorities that they believed were the best statewide, but when you do that in a very diverse state it can lead to barriers,” he said.

By comparison, the ERAP allows most renters and landlords to apply independently and places fewer restrictions on how the funds can be used. It allows for variable monthly reimbursements, and for relief payments to go toward utility bills.

Miller tied the issue of utility reimbursements to racial and ethnic equity. Across the state, Black and Latino renters are more utility-burdened than their White counterparts, according to a report released jointly by the legal nonprofits Pennsylvania Utility Law Project and Community Legal Services.

“Not only have communities of color suffered higher rates of infection, serious illness, and death, the economic impacts are disproportionately felt in those communities as well,” Miller said.

Distribution of the program’s funds will be handled on a county-by-county basis. Larger counties, including all those in southeastern Pennsylvania, received funds directly and are handling distribution through their own agencies. The state’s 47 less-populous counties did not receive individual allocations, and so relief for renters will be administered by the state DHS in these communities.

In Philadelphia, which has distributed three total rounds of rental relief from the CARES Act, the new program will provide $97 million for the City’s Phase 4 of its rental assistance program

Mayor Jim Kenney said at the press briefing that the city now expects the new phase to protect up to 20,000 households from eviction.

“We know that tens of thousands of our city’s tenants and landlords are suffering because of the pandemic, and we are doing everything we can to help,” Kenney said.

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