Capitol

The State Capitol in Harrisburg.

THE ISSUE

“The Pennsylvania mortgage and rent relief program has once again stopped accepting new applications after reaching (its) extended deadline on Wednesday, potentially leaving millions of dollars unspent statewide,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko reported Friday. For months, advocates have asked the state to make changes to the program so it can more efficiently help greater numbers of qualifying applicants. But no significant reform has been passed in Harrisburg.

This is another disappointment involving a sluggish, bloated state Legislature that can’t move fast enough in the middle of a health crisis to streamline a program that has great potential to help struggling renters and their landlords.

It’s a familiar refrain, but we can ill afford for Harrisburg to remain this dysfunctional and unresponsive to the needs of Pennsylvanians as the COVID-19 pandemic surges and barrels toward an ominously uncertain winter.

Vulnerable families must be assured they will continue to have a roof over their heads.

Landlords need the certainty of payments that will help them with their own bills.

The CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March gave states the funds to help homeowners and renters in dire straits because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. But Pennsylvania has not done enough to get those federal relief dollars disbursed to those in need.

LNP | LancasterOnline’s Meko explained that the state’s mortgage and rent relief program was established specifically to help those who lost income due to COVID-19. It originally accepted applications through Sept. 30. Then, after a short interruption, “Gov. Tom Wolf unilaterally issued an order that extended the application deadline through Nov. 4, giving administrators an extra month to process more applicants,” Meko wrote.

The extension was helpful. But it wasn’t the sole thing needed. It wasn’t enough for the households, landlords and the social services agencies working as intermediaries in navigating the cumbersome process.

As Meko explained in an August story, even after a tenant qualifies for assistance, “receiving the actual funds gets complicated because landlords have to then separately agree to be a part of the program and submit their own applications.”

And that’s a snag. “Landlords can be averse to agreeing, because the monthly payment to them is capped by the state at $750,” we noted in an August editorial. “The landlord must accept that figure as whole payment and cannot ask the tenant to pay the difference.”

Wolf stepped up again and helped with that problem. He issued an order in October allowing renters to negotiate payment plans that let their landlords recoup any amount over the $750 payment from the state program.

Wolf deserves praise for his actions. But there’s only so much the Democratic governor can do without the General Assembly.

“Wolf said he was unable to unilaterally make any more changes to the program and that any additional fixes would have to come from the Legislature,” Meko wrote.

And the Republican-led Legislature has been stuck in the mud on providing help, even though it has been made clear what would improve the program.

“From the beginning, advocates have asked for specific changes ... such as getting rid of the requirement that tenants be 30 days in arrears before applying, a fair-market grant amount instead of the $750-a-month cap per household regardless of size and simplifying the complicated application process,” Meko wrote Friday.

A House bill introduced by state Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin County, in September addressed some of those requests. The bill was delayed when House sessions were canceled because a legislator tested positive for COVID-19. It finally passed unanimously in October but died in the Senate, where Republican leadership said it wasn’t necessary because Wolf’s aforementioned actions had been sufficient to address the situation.

That’s inaccurate. Wolf’s orders helped but were not nearly sufficient.

Failure to act by the Legislature could lead to as much as $500,000 in available relief funds going unspent in Lancaster County alone, where more than 125 new households applied for assistance in the final week before the deadline. The deadline to disburse funds to qualifying applicants is Nov. 30.

“We acknowledge that sorting through all of the details of each applicant and follow-up for more information takes weeks to complete,” Justin Eby, deputy executive director at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, told Meko. “We may not receive all of the required supporting information in time and are unable to help tenants who may actually qualify for the program.”

That could put vulnerable families at risk of eviction — yes, eviction.

While a September order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Trump administration halted many evictions until the end of the year, a statewide investigation by Spotlight PA “found an inconsistent system of justice across the 67 counties, leaving many vulnerable residents without the protections they were promised. All told, despite the federal order, whether or not families get kicked out of their homes often comes down to where they live, and which judge happens to hear their case.”

That’s unconscionable.

No one whose housing status has been put at risk because of COVID-19 should face eviction this year.

Or this winter, even.

What federal and state programs and protections will be in place for renters, homeowners and landlords after Jan. 1? COVID-19 will not be done with us when we flip the calendar to a new year.

As we wrote in August, “more people on the streets or in shelters — or even on the couches of family members — could worsen the COVID-19 situation here. Lawmakers can’t let that happen.”

And so we turn our eyes again to Harrisburg.

And wonder when the lawmakers there will start taking this health crisis seriously.