Philly’s coronavirus response

Only a third of CARES Act housing relief went to PA residents. The rest went to the state budget.

Of 75k people who applied to the PHFA program, fewer than 27k got assistance.

Rowhomes in North Philadelphia

Rowhomes in North Philadelphia

Emma Lee / WHYY
jasonpeter

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Pennsylvania only distributed about a third of the CARES Act money allocated for rent and mortgage relief in the commonwealth, the agency in charge of the program confirmed this week.

The federal funding was supposed to go to state residents hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, but of $150 million granted by the federal government, only $54 million went to renters and homeowners in need.

Of more than 46,000 tenants and 29,000 property owners who applied to the programs, only about 35% in each group actually received housing assistance.

“While we all would have liked to have assisted even more renters, we are grateful for the thousands of people we were able to help stay in their homes,” said Robin Wiessmann, director of the Pa. Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), which administered the program.

The rest of the money will go to balance the state budget, as determined by the Pa. Legislature in a November vote that applied all unused CARES Act funding to the pending deficit.

“Rather than use federal dollars to help people in their time of need, we used the money to plug budget holes,” said Pa. Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia.

Critics raised alarms early about the program. It was structured in a way that made funding difficult to access — and participation unappealing to banks. The state’s biggest lender, Wells Fargo, waffled on whether it would participate, leaving many applicants hanging as they emptied savings accounts while waiting for approval.

Efforts by Harrisburg lawmakers to correct the issues were stymied by GOP leadership in the Pa. Senate.

A bill introduced by Rep. Sue Helm, a Republican, passed the Pa. House unanimously. The legislation would have raised caps on amounts covered by the program, allowing them to better match fair market value in each area. It would also have eliminated some of the red tape for renters, landlords, and banks attempting to participate in the program.

Although a partner bill in the Senate had bipartisan support, Republican leaders refused to bring their version to a vote before the program ended.

The assistance program had already been extended by Gov. Tom Wolf, whose executive order postponed the application deadline from Sept. 30 to Nov. 4.

Part of the issue was likely communication of the funding’s availability. By the new deadline, residents had only applied for $121 million of the available $150 million. But distribution was also stymied, PHFA director Weissman acknowledged, calling the program a “major undertaking that required extensive coordination … under extreme time pressure.”

The $96 million in undistributed funds will now go to “the Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania State Police, and the Department of Health,” a spokesperson for the chair of the House Appropriations Committee told Spotlight PA.

Between 260k and 400k renter households in Pa. are considered at risk of eviction, according to a study by the National Council of State Housing Agencies. Over the past two months in Philadelphia, landlords have filed for 1,500 evictions in Philadelphia, according to nationwide database Eviction Lab.

Democrats in the Pa. Senate have proposed allocating $100 million towards housing assistance through legislation dubbed the Pennsylvania Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act, aka “PA CARES.”

 

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