Pa. opens new pandemic rent relief program, with no cap on assistance

Some counties, including Philadelphia, have opted out of the state portal.

A street in Philly's Francisville neighborhood

A street in Philly's Francisville neighborhood

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
jasonpeter

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Pennsylvania’s new pandemic rent relief program is now open and accepting applications, although some counties, including Philadelphia, have opted out of the state-run portal.

Unlike Pa.’s previous effort to help residents facing COVID-related economic distress stay in their homes, which saw only a third of the $150 million in funds actually distributed, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) is much less restrictive.

Increasing accessibility was top of mind when formulating the new program, according to Erin James, spokesperson for the Pa. Department of Human Services “The Wolf Administration, through the DHS, worked with the General Assembly to design this program with the challenges of the previous model in mind,” she said.

Under ERAP, either landlords or tenants can apply for assistance — and the money can be used for things like utilities and homeschooling costs. There’s also no dollar amount cap on the monthly aid, which can be provided for up to a year.

Applications are being accepted via the commonwealth’s COMPASS portal, although residents of the Greater Philadelphia region, as well as Pittsburgh and some other areas of the state, must instead apply through systems set up by local officials.

“Philadelphia already has an effective and efficient application system for emergency rental assistance that is working,” a city spokesperson told Billy Penn. Update: As of April 5, Philly has opened its next round of rent relief, with applications available on PHLRentAssist.org.

Here’s a look at what the ERAP program offers, who is eligible to apply, and how much help you can get.

What does the program offer?

ERAP can cover “expenses including rent, rent arrears, rental costs for trailers and trailer lots, and may include long-term housing hotels, motels, and boarding homes,” according to the Pa. Department of Human Services .

Utilities may also be accounted for, including “electricity, gas, water, sewer, trash removal and energy costs.”

Other expenses covered under the program include but are not limited to relocation expenses, rental fees, reasonable late fees, and internet services for work, home schooling, or telemedicine.

Who is eligible?

Pennsylvania’s previous rent relief program required that landlords and renters apply together, but under ERAP, either landlords or renters can apply. When a landlord applies, they must have the renter’s signature.

Eligible households must have an income lower than 80% of what’s called the Area Median Income (AMI). AMI varies by county; here’s a list.

And one or more people in the household must have had a decrease in income, had increased household costs, qualified for unemployment benefits, or experienced other financial hardship, either directly or indirectly because of the pandemic.

The program is also accessible to individuals experiencing homelessness.

What documentation do you need?

You’ll need identification information for the head of household, which could include a driver’s license, state-issued ID card, or passport. ERAP applicants will need income information for all household members over the age of 18, a copy of your current lease and “something to show the amount of rent you owe.”

Applicants will also need to provide their landlord’s contact information, along with utility expenses and provider information.

According to the ERAP site, you might also be asked to provide pay stubs, W-2s, other wage statements, documentation of benefits, or documents showing lost income.

Which counties are managing their own applications?

The counties listed below have all opted to facilitate their own application process:

Allegheny, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Crawford, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Elk, Erie, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Washington, Westmoreland, and York.

Find links or contact info for each of these counties in the PDF here.

How much does ERAP offer compared to the previous program?

Under the old program, the cap for rental assistance was $750 per month for up to six months and a maximum of $4,500. ERAP has no cap, and benefits can extend for up to 12 months.

Previously, you had to prove a 30% reduction in annual income related to COVID-19 in order to qualify. Now you just have to show some kind of pandemic-related loss and be under the 80% mean income for your area.

“The ERAP is available to a broader population,” said DHS spokesperson James

Where is the money coming from?

Pennsylvania received $569 million for housing relief out of the $900 billion pandemic stimulus approved by Congress in January. In early February, Gov. Wolf signed a bill to put the Pa. Department of Human Services in charge of distributing the funds.

Why is DHS running the program?

One of the primary reasons DHS was chosen to run the program is its existing online infrastructure. The department oversees state-run programs like SNAP and CHIP through a system called COMPASS, and the ERAP application was added to that existing platform.

Last time around, the rent relief program was run by the Pa. Housing Finance Agency — which failed to distribute the majority of the funds.

“[DHS] has better infrastructure for that sort of administration, and time is of the essence for people in need of housing assistance,” said Wesley Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Caucus of the Pa. Senate.

Will officials get the word out this time?

Many Pa. residents never heard about the previous rental assistance program, or only heard about it when ready about its failures, after the application window had closed.

Like last time, ERAP was given “no marketing money” to promote the program. Instead, spokesperson James said, DHS will be relying heavily on “press, social media and our partnerships with stakeholders and advocacy partners.”

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