Zoe Stratos | Opinions Editor
Sept. 2, 2021
Thousands of Americans behind on rent, landlords struggling to make ends meet: what happened to the American Rescue Plan?
The funding is there, but the pace of distributing those funds isn’t fast enough. And as the eviction moratorium finally came to an end on Aug. 26, displacement is highly likely for these struggling individuals.
But it’s not too late to mitigate the damage propagated by Covid-19 — as long as the state governments get their act together.
Constructed by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has been a crucial program in aiding both tenants and landlords in acquiring money needed to satisfy rent or even utilities.
The problem is that this money was supposed to be distributed so there wouldn’t be a need for the moratorium to continue, but the numbers show that the end came far too quickly.
Of the $847 million in federal assistance given to the Wolf administration, a little over 25% had been distributed to Pennsylvanians from March through July, according to data from the state Department of Treasury.
So far, 50,359 households have been assisted with $218.5 million in rent and utility payments, but thousands more still wait for their assistance.
What’s even more surprising is that the 25% in Pennsylvania is far ahead of the national average, sitting at approximately 11%.
As the Aug. 26 date neared, the Biden administration knew its moratorium policy wouldn’t continue after Supreme Court review, but the goal was at least to allocate a little bit of time for aid to get out the door.
But the response from state governments was less than adequate. The moratorium is gone, and it’s critical for the aid to flow faster than it has been.
Being that the devastation caused by Covid-19 is unprecedented in modern times, the reaction time from state governments had to be of lightning speed. States had to cultivate distribution systems, alert the public of the ERAP program, create applications, review and process submitted applications and make sure all of it was distributed fairly and correctly.
Moreover, states have had technical issues with application websites, often caused by an overwhelming amount of applications. Landlords and tenants without internet access have had to rely on friends and family to help them apply. Documentation of income has slowed applicants from submitting their requests.
There’s no denying this wasn’t an easy feat — as with anything in these times — but there’s been different options to prevent these delays. From here on out, it may save thousands of people from eviction.
Shortly before the end of the moratorium, the Treasury emphasized to states not to delay application confirmations while applicants gather necessary documents to finalize qualification.
In Pennsylvania, the average time to complete the application process is about 30 to 45 days, according to a statement by Kim Berkeley Clark, the president judge of the fifth judicial district of Pennsylvania in Allegheny County.
By beginning the confirmation process while applicants gather certain documents, the entire processing time could be cut by potentially a few days — allowing for more Pennsylvanians to stay in their homes.
Another way to prevent evictions is for housing advocates to take their concerns to court, as Allegheny County and Bucks County in eastern Pa. did back at the beginning of August.
In these high or substantial transmission areas for Covid-19, such as ones with larger cities, judges may petition the state Supreme Court for delays in eviction hearings to protect renters trying to pay.
Judge Clark requested to reinstitute procedures to allow for sufficient time for applications to be processed and funds to be distributed through Oct. 31 while placing a temporary stay on most eviction hearings, according to the approved request.
The procedures allow for hearings in landlord/tenant cases to be scheduled up to 15 days beyond the time set forth in court rules. Initial hearings are instead treated as status conferences to consider applications for rental assistance.
“These are households impacted by Covid-19 whether due to illness or death, or loss of employment, transportation, childcare, etc. and have fallen behind on meeting their basic needs,” the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters (PURR) said in response to the request.
Housing advocates say the protections are not only humane to prevent evictions due to these issues, but it’s also a smart policy because there’s still a sizable budget available for rental assistance that can be given to struggling tenants.
Most importantly, states need to commit themselves to helping renters and landlords in this situation beyond their control.
And with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, the states are all they have left.
They must act now.