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More Funds Coming for Rental Assistance for Tenants, Other COVID-19 Economic Programs

The Philadelphia Tribune: Michael D’Onofrio - December 4, 2020

Emergency programs to subsidize tenant rents and help them avoid evictions during the novel coronavirus pandemic are slated to get an infusion of funding.

City legislators are moving forward with $11.3 million in new federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to address housing, economic and business needs during the pandemic.

Legislators could approve the funding proposal as soon as next week.

The bulk of the new funding, $7.5 million, will go toward the city’s rental assistance program, PHLRentAssist, which helps pay rent for tenants who have lost income due to COVID-19. Some of that funding also would go toward the city’s eviction diversion program.

The remaining funding would go toward housing counseling and legal services to prevent eviction and foreclosure ($1 million), administrative costs ($2 million), assistance for minority and small businesses ($265,570) and neighborhood development ($300,000).

The influx of funding to rental assistance program would contribute to a third round of rent payments that extend through the end of the year to eligible tenants already enrolled in the program.

The rental program is not accepting new applicants. Eligible applicants should receive an email from the city.

Mike Dunn, a Kenney administration spokesman, said in an email that the federal Coronavirus Relief Funds can only be used to pay for rent this year.

Tenants will continue to need help in 2021 and the administration hopes the federal government will provide more funding for the program, Dunn said.

“The crisis of renters not being able to afford rent was a challenge before the pandemic and will continue to be an urgent challenge long after the pandemic,” Dunn said.

Holly Beck, an attorney at Community Legal Services, said in an email that any new funding was positive but it won’t be enough to meet the need.

Beck said Black communities in Philadelphia were not only the hardest hit by COVID-19 but have always been more likely to face eviction, especially Black women with children.

“So rental assistance is needed to address these deep race and gender inequities,” she said.

The city has already spent $60 million on the rental assistance program this year. More than 10,000 households have already received funding through PHLRentAssist, which provided assistance for up to six months.

The city upped the monthly cap on rent assistance that tenants could receive from $750 in the first round to $1,500 in the second round. The average for total monthly assistance distributed to tenants in the second round was $4,805. The rental assistance is sent directly to landlords in most cases.

Philadelphia’s monthly cap for rental assistance lags those of other cities, including Pittsburgh, where the rental assistance program offers up to $2,000 per month to some applicants.

African Americans were the largest racial group enrolled in the rental assistance program (71%) in the second round of assistance, far surpassing their portion of the city’s overall population (43%). Whites were the second largest racial group to receive funding (21%), followed by Asian Americans (4%).

The ZIP codes with the highest numbers of applicants for the rental assistance program in Phase 2 were:

  • 19144 in the Germantown neighborhood: 869 applicants.

  • 19143 in South Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood: 852 applicants.

  • 19139 in West Philadelphia: 831 applicants.

  • 19124 in North Philadelphia’s Frankford and Juniata neighborhoods: 812 applicants.

  • 19140 in North Philadelphia’s Hunting Parking and Nicetown-Tioga neighborhoods: 724 applicants.

Victor Pinckney, senior vice president of rental industry group Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, supported the continuation of the rental assistance program but stressed that all assistance payments should be sent to landlords. (Some tenants were sent direct payments during the second round of payments.)

Paying landlords helps them stave off mortgage foreclosures and make improvements on their units for tenants, Pinckney said.

“We understand that these tenants don’t have money,” he said. “But on the other hand, if landlords are not getting any money, then we can’t keep the places up and pay our mortgages and provide safe housing.”

The rental assistance program was launched along with an eviction diversion program during the beginning months of the pandemic.

Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was a non-seasonally adjusted 10.6% in October, the most recent preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. unemployment rate in November was 6.7%.

The Kenney administration paused the launch of its own rental assistance program earlier this year due to the pandemic’s effect on the economy, which led to a massive city budget gap.

Dunn said the administration may launch its rental assistance program in 2021, which would be funded through donations and build on the emergency coronavirus program.

“Future programs will be able to utilize this existing staff, IT and other infrastructure that we have brought online for the emergency COVID rent assistance programs,” Dunn said.

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