by Charlotte Kieth/Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — Almost every day for the past month, as the end of a federal freeze on evictions edges closer, Brian Bastian has checked the status of his application for rental assistance online, only to experience a familiar thud of disappointment.
Since applying at the end of March, his case has moved through three of the five stages, each completed step shown by a green circle. The next two circles, the ones standing between him and the payment that would wipe away his debt, remain stubbornly grayed out, with no progress for at least a month, he said.
Bastian, 34, said the restaurant supply company where he worked went out of business in November. His savings started to run out in January. He is seven months and thousands of dollars behind on the rent for his Pittsburgh apartment.
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Come Aug. 1, he may be one of thousands of people across Pennsylvania at risk of losing their homes, even as local governments and nonprofits race to distribute $870 million in federal funding for rent and utility relief.
Much of the money remains unspent. By the end of June, Pennsylvania had paid out $133 million, or roughly 17%, of its total allocation, according to federal data released in late July — more than most states.
Even so, the assistance has yet to reach thousands who are still waiting, according to state data that includes most but not all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. At least 44,000 applications were pending at the end of June, while 17,500 had been completed.
“Community leaders, including nonprofits and local governments, have accomplished a Herculean task in getting this program up and running in a very short period of time,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, an advocacy group. “But it still takes time for applications to move through the process and I don’t see how there won’t be a huge spike in eviction filings.”
A ban on evictions implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though not a cure-all, has kept thousands of Pennsylvania tenants who couldn’t pay rent because of the pandemic in their homes. Originally set to expire at the end of 2020, the order has been extended several times.
In a statement three days before the eviction ban was set to expire July 31, President Joe Biden called on Congress to extend it, saying he cannot do so on his own because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Pennsylvania’s first rent relief effort was stymied by a monthly cap on payments and onerous paperwork requirements that left many people unable to get help. The $150 million program ended last year with two-thirds of the money unspent, which state lawmakers — who failed to address its design flaws, despite repeated warnings — reallocated to help cover the Department of Corrections’ payroll.
Advocates for landlords and tenants agree that this round of rental assistance is an improvement. With more money to go around, there are options to cover utility bills as well as rent, and up to 15 months of payments available instead of six.
But because each county runs its own program and determines the details, the system is uneven. Where a tenant lives can determine how easy it is to apply for assistance and whether they’ll be protected from eviction while they wait for help.
Under a Philadelphia court order, for example, landlords there must apply for rental assistance at least 45 days before they can file to evict a tenant for non-payment.
In June, the Department of Justice encouraged state and local courts to follow the city’s example, or at least postpone pending eviction cases where people are waiting for assistance.
“Simply providing additional time to forestall evictions will make a critical difference,” wrote Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
But few judges in Pennsylvania’s other counties have taken this path, according to interviews with legal aid attorneys and housing advocates.
Program administrators say landlords have a strong financial incentive to hold off on evicting tenants who are waiting for assistance. The federal aid often represents their best chance at being made whole after months without payments.
But protections for tenants have been in place since last March — first from the state, then under the CDC order that will expire this weekend — and some landlords are growing impatient.
With his landlord reminding him almost daily about his overdue balance, Bastian is already packing up his apartment in anticipation. He is one of almost 3,000 households in Allegheny County who have qualified for assistance but are still waiting for the money. Thousands of others are even further back in the queue.
“We shouldn’t have to wait until we are evicted,” he said.
Across the state, the organizations tasked with running the new rent relief program say they are working as fast as possible, in many cases giving priority to tenants who already have evictions filed against them.
With the stakes so high, Jarrett Crowell, a caseworker for Allegheny County’s program, has learned to focus on the incremental tasks that go into getting the area’s $80 million allocation out to struggling landlords and tenants: checking boxes, inputting data, fielding questions about tax forms and Social Security letters and utility bills.
On a good day, his team at ACTION-Housing, the nonprofit running the county’s program, can “hammer through” applications with few interruptions, he said. Other days are eaten up by confusing cases, where taking even 15 extra minutes to puzzle over an ambiguous entry in a rental ledger means worrying about all the other things he isn’t doing in the meantime.
“It’s hard to celebrate progress when there’s so much more progress we have to make,” he said.
A few miles away from ACTION-Housing’s office in downtown Pittsburgh, Julia Evans is down to “$50 and a full tank of gas” after five months of waiting on rental assistance and an unemployment claim. She is terrified to check the date: The first of each month brings a new set of bills she can’t pay.
“It’s panic-inducing,” said Evans, 40, who lives in a suburb of Pittsburgh with her three children. “It’s basically just trying to hold on as long as you can to spend every last penny.”
Eviction Filings Over Time
After Pennsylvania’s statewide eviction ban ended Aug. 31, landlords filed nearly 2,000 eviction complaints on Sept. 1. A federal order put in place on Sept. 4 protected some tenants who were unable to pay rent because of the pandemic, but did not stop eviction filings entirely. Not all filings result in eviction.
An uneven system
In Pennsylvania, each county is running its own rent relief program and they often disagree — for instance, on whether to pay late fees and court costs, or whether to cover back rent for an apartment someone has already left. One particular point of contention is whether tenants have to document their income and financial struggles.
Federal guidance says programs can rely on an applicant’s self-attestation — a signed statement that their income is low enough to qualify, or that they have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic — if they can’t produce the necessary documents. The Biden administration has urged local governments to take advantage of this flexibility in order to process applications more quickly.
“This is not a time to hide behind being overly conservative, overly cautious, overly complacent,” Gene Sperling, the White House official overseeing pandemic relief spending, said at a recent event on eviction prevention.
Dave Young, executive director of Schuylkill Community Action, however, said the risk of fraud outweighs the benefit of being able to process applications faster.
“It’s a hard concept for me to grasp, just from our experience overseeing so many programs that require income verification,” Young said.
York County, by contrast, allows applicants to self-attest as the default, only asking for more documentation if there are lingering questions, said Shelley Peterson, director of housing counseling and education at Community Progress Council, which is running the program there.
“We feel the time crunch and the absolute pressure to do what we can to help,” she said.
But county administrators there are not following federal guidelines that direct programs to pay tenants if their landlords aren’t willing to participate, with an agreement the money will go to the landlord. Guidance from the U.S. Treasury said that when a landlord won’t cooperate, this workaround is the only way to achieve what Congress wanted.
In York County, fewer than 100 landlords have refused to take part. And if a landlord is determined to get rid of a tenant, rental assistance is unlikely to make a difference, Peterson said. “It still hurts for the families not getting assistance, but I’m not sure the assistance would have stopped them from being evicted.”
Landlords are still able to evict tenants after accepting assistance to cover back rent, unless a county mandates otherwise. York County has chosen not to, Peterson said, wary of deterring landlords.
Legal aid attorneys argue that even if paying tenants directly won’t always stave off an eviction, it can still buy them time and make it easier to find a new place to live. It also protects tenants on the slim chance that a landlord tries to collect debt remaining after an eviction by garnishing their wages or asking a sheriff to sell off their possessions.
Acting Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Meg Snead said while not required, the option to pay tenants directly is a “historic opportunity to do things differently,” and the agency encourages it.
Delaware County has also decided against it for other reasons, including the potential for fraud.
“We were very concerned that we didn’t really have accountability as to whether or not that money would go to pay rent,” said Jeremey Newberg, CEO of Capital Access, Inc., which is running the program locally. Although the policy is currently under review, Newberg said no one had been denied access to the assistance because a landlord wouldn’t take part.
Washington County hasn’t had any landlords refuse, either, said Jessica Hajek-Bates, director of Blueprints, the nonprofit running the program there. But she said the agency would hesitate to pay tenants directly. “In some of these cases, it’s a very large check to give someone,” she said.
Turning To The Courts
Following Philadelphia’s lead, advocates are turning to local judges in an attempt to ensure people aren’t kicked out while they’re still waiting for help. So far, they’ve had few successes.
In June, Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania asked courts in each of the four suburban counties it serves to divert or delay eviction cases to give tenants more time to receive help.
A week later, the president judge in Delaware County issued an order requiring local courts to inform tenants facing eviction about the rental assistance program, “prominently display” posters about it, and distribute flyers with details. It also said judges handling eviction cases should allow extra time for applications to go through.
The order relied on broad emergency powers granted to each county last year by the state Supreme Court. But the high court revoked counties’ abilities to use those powers without its approval just days later, saying the time had come for courts to return to “pre-pandemic status.” That effectively canceled Delaware County’s order, Legal Aid attorneys said.
Courts in the other two counties declined Legal Aid’s requests to implement eviction diversion measures, arguing they did not have the legal authority to do so after the Supreme Court ended their emergency powers, said Marion Hoffman Fraley, a Legal Aid spokesperson.
A spokesperson for the state court system said in a statement that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order “does not alter a president judge’s authority with respect to scheduling and managing local dockets and caseloads,” or “impair the authority of individual trial courts to make appropriate orders in eviction proceedings.”
Some tenant attorneys believe counties can still implement safeguards without emergency powers, and at least one has done so. Bucks County recently issued an order allowing judges to postpone eviction cases for up to 60 days if a tenant is waiting on rental assistance.
Even without formal court orders, program administrators in several counties are in touch with local judges and hope they will take pending assistance applications into account when deciding eviction cases. Some said local judges had referred landlords and tenants to relief programs.
“It’s simply wrong to evict a household for non-payment of rent when there are hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance available,” said Patrick Cicero, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.
A disappearing safeguard
The federal eviction ban has kept Stacey Horrocks in her house in Boyertown for 11 months, a lifeline that has also felt, at times, like a trap.
She applied for rent relief in March, but her application stalled in April when Berks County’s program began trying to contact her landlord, Rose Gross.
The relationship between landlord and tenant had already reached a breaking point last summer, after Horrocks, 51, stopped being able to pay rent. Her lease was not renewed and Gross filed to evict her. But under the CDC order, she was still living, month after month, in a house she could no longer afford, owned by someone who wanted her out.
Horrocks came to dread Gross’ terse text messages — no, she still couldn’t pay; yes, she was doing her best to get help and catch up — so when she qualified for a new phone from Medicaid, she didn’t give Gross the number.
By May, things had grown so tense between them that when she came downstairs one afternoon to the sound of Gross rapping on the door and telling her to open up, Horrocks started filming and called the police.
“We’re here to inspect!” Gross shouted, her outline blurry through the frosted glass.
“I was not informed, Rose!” Horrocks yelled back.
As Horrocks paced across the living room, the video glanced over her abandoned attempts at packing, a maroon sofa, a garden gnome with a red hat — all the things she had accumulated in the years she had lived there and had now mostly resigned herself to losing.