When Cynthia Woodman saw an email in early July from the AARP about a state program launched to help renters affected by the coronavirus epidemic, she applied right away.
But when Woodman — who was let go from her job in April — received a denial because she wasn’t late on her rent payments yet, she was surprised.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Woodman, of Lancaster Township, said. “I would think the process is to prevent that (late payment) from happening.”
Undeterred, Woodman applied again when she was in arrears and learned on Monday that she was approved for two months of payments. Although she’s had to apply a third time to get additional months of help, Woodman said she’s glad for the assistance, especially as her unemployment is running out.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people in the same boat as me,” she said.
But the program helping Woodman is scheduled to stop taking new applications on Wednesday, even as most of the $150 million budgeted for the program remains unspent.
As of Tuesday, about $100 million in assistance had been requested statewide, but only about $50 million had been dispersed as rent payments to tenants or landlords.
In Lancaster County, of 526 submitted applications, 180 have been approved. In total, $375,000 in payments has been made so far. Many applications were also submitted Tuesday, according to the county housing agency.
When the program launched in July, it experienced numerous hiccups, including a complicated application process that confused many people seeking help from the program, and the lack of Spanish-language versions of the application.
Housing advocates warned that the requirement that tenants be 30 days in arrears before applying would delay assistance to renters and landlords in need of short-term help. They also criticized the program's $750-a-month-cap per household, and the Sept. 30 cutoff date, which they correctly forecasted would leave much of the program's budget untouched.
The program’s cap of $750 and the length of time her application took to be processed led Darlynettee Pedraza’s landlord to back out of applying for the assistance in July.
Pedraza, of Mount Joy, borrowed money to pay her landlord, but making the payment made her ineligible for the state program. She waited another month and applied again.
Data from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the agency in charge of managing the state funds, backed up housing advocates’ fears that the program's problems were slowing payments to renters and landlords.
PFHA’s Aug. report showed that 16,846 lessees and 7,102 landlords applied to the program statewide, but only 1,927 (11%) lessees and 1,345 (18%) landlords received assistance. That month, $32,331,483 in assistance was requested by applicants, but just $3,577,034 in direct assistance was actually expended. In July, just $500,000 was paid out to approve applicants.
After her third application, Pedraza, who lives with her husband and three children, was approved to receive payments.
“It was definitely worth it,” Pedraza said. “It was a struggle at first, but it was definitely worth it.”
Changes urged by groups representing renters and landlords, including an extension of the program beyond Oct. 1, have yet to be acted on by the legislature. Even if the state House of Representatives has approves an extension this week, the state Senate is not in session until Oct. 5.
The program could still be restarted at a later date, said Scott Elliot, director of communications at PHFA.
“…PHFA has been planning ahead so that if CARES amending legislation is passed we should be able to reopen the program with minimal delays,” Elliot said in an email. “There is so much work to do with the Rent Relief Program that even if there is a delay that causes the program’s application process to be closed for a few days, there are still thousands of applications to be processed by the counties.”
For example, there were 12,000 applications in Philadelphia County. That flood of interest forced the county to create a new back-end processing system, which slowed review of applications. Of the initial 12,000, the county has approved about 1,250 applications — and counting — to start receiving rental assistance in upcoming weeks.
It takes time because of the infrastructure needed to responsibly run a program of this volume, check that applications are complete and meet the requirement and weed out duplicates, said Greg Heller, senior vice president of community investments for Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.
“Just putting money on the street and then closing the program is a Band-aid to a long-term problem,” Heller said. “I hope that we can come away from this and understand the need for ongoing rental assistance, not just in Philadelphia but across the commonwealth.”
A bill introduced this month to strengthen the state program by implementing a number of changes urged by advocates is closest to being approved.
Introduced by state Rep. Susan C. Helm, R-Dauphin, the bill moved unanimously through the House Urban Affairs Committee and is scheduled for a second consideration in the House on Wednesday and a third on Thursday.
“I wish it wasn’t the end of September,” Helm said on Monday. “It’s pretty much the best we could do, but we will get it done.”
So far, the bill has had overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle. If it passes the House and reaches the Senate, “the Senate is going to get a phone call,” Helm said.