Mask Oct 23 2020

Melissa Lopez wears a mask while shopping at Lancaster's Central Market Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

The state’s rental relief program officially ended Monday, potentially leaving much of the $150 million in aid unspent while tenants and landlords continue to grapple with the economic impacts of COVID-19. A total of $400,000 of undisbursed funds will be returned to the state from Lancaster County alone.

According to the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, $1.6 million went to 1,373 people living in 530 households. However, since the program launched in July, over 900 households had applied for assistance, according to Justin Eby, deputy executive director.

The program — established with federal CARES Act funding to assist homeowners and renters who lost income due to COVID-19 — stopped accepting applications on Nov. 4, but program administrators had until Monday to disperse final payments.

A total of $169 million in assistance was requested by renters statewide, but most of that money was never distributed, either due to incomplete applications or because applicants didn’t meet programmatic requirements. By the end of October, only about $20 million had been dispersed.

In an effort to expand access to the program, the Lancaster County Commissioners approved using $200,000 of the county’s CARES funds to help the housing authority make rent amounts whole and incentivize landlords to participate. Practically all of the county dollars, $198,075, has been allocated to help make rent whole for 210 households, most recent data shows.

From the beginning, housing advocates and the officials running housing assistance programs called for changes to the program, saying that the rigid requirements kept funds from reaching many tenants in need. They urged removal of the requirement that tenants be 30 days in arrears before applying, and they recommended that monthly payments be tied to market rates instead of the $750-a-month-cap per household regardless of size. They also said the complicated application process should be simplified.

But relief from the legislature never came.

Besides an order from Gov. Tom Wolf in October that allowed landlords and tenants to negotiate payment plans as a way to recoup any amount over $750 from the tenant, none of the advocates’ requests were enacted. And a last-ditch legislative fix died in the state Senate after Republican leadership said the measure was no longer needed because the Govt. Tom Wolf extended the application deadline -- which was originally set for Sept. 30.

Once the bill fell short, administrators throughout the state pushed to get applications approved and funds dispersed as quickly as they could. In Lancaster, the redevelopment authority dispersed about $600,000 over three weeks in November -- an increase from $450,000 during all of October.

The remaining money has to be returned to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency by Friday, Eby said. In turn, the PHFA is required to return all unspent program money to the state.

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