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Fewer Renters Applying For Relief; Pandemic Rules Easing

Michael Dwyer

Fewer renters than expected are applying for pandemic assistance in Pennsylvania, alarming state officials who urged tenants who are behind on rent to submit their applications now in light of a judge's recent decision striking down a national eviction moratorium.

The ruling has been put on hold while the Biden administration appeals. But the uncertainty around the moratorium prompted the Department of Human Services, which runs the state's rental assistance program, to plead with renters to take advantage of the program.

“I'm extremely concerned that people are not moving quickly to pursue this assistance because the moratorium was expected to be in place,” Meg Snead, the acting DHS secretary, said Tuesday. “And I'm extremely concerned about what may occur, and circumstances people will be in, if the ruling stands.”

Snead said the program is meant to help Pennsylvania avoid a wave of evictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pennsylvania's 67 counties received about $847 million in federal relief to help tenants pay rent and utilities. The state's rent relief program launched in March.

Early indications are that it has been slow to get off the ground. Only about 8,000 applications for rental assistance have been submitted through a state portal, representing two-thirds of Pennsylvania counties. The average benefit has been about $4,000 per applicant.

More complete numbers are expected next week.

“We do not want to leave funds unspent when we know there is likely an incredible need across Pennsylvania,” Snead said.

Pennsylvania had similar problems last year, spending just $54 million on rental assistanceout of $150 million allocated in an earlier relief package. The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority returned the rest, some of which went to the state corrections department.

A primary roadblock to landlords' willingness to participate in last year's program — a $750 cap on monthly payments — does not apply this year.

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Tuesday:

Gathering limits relaxed

Pennsylvania is allowing more people at indoor and outdoor events.

Beginning Monday, occupancy limits will be increased to 50% of capacity for indoor events, up from 25%, and to 75% for outdoor events, up from 50%.

“As more Pennsylvania adults get vaccinated and guidance from the CDC evolves, we can continue to move forward with the commonwealth’s reopening efforts,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement Tuesday.

The state has previously announcedthat nearly all COVID restrictions will go away on Memorial Day, including capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses, as well as indoor and outdoor event gathering limits. The state's mask mandate will remain until 75% of adults are fully vaccinated. Statewide, about 45.6% of people aged 18 and older have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, city officials announced pandemic restrictions will be eased beginning later this month, and will go away almost entirely on June 11.

Starting May 21, retail stores and offices will no longer have to operate at reduced capacity, and the city is lifting its rule that bars and restaurants can only serve alcohol with food. Capacity limits on gyms, exercise classes and theaters will be eased, as well as limits on outdoor and indoor catered events.

The city plans to lift all restrictions under its “Safer at Home” initiative on June 11, though its masking requirement will remain for the foreseeable future.

The health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said he’s keeping the mask mandate in place to make sure the dip in cases and the positivity rate is not just a seasonal phenomenon.

“It’s not a big deal. It’s a light thing. We’re not asking people to carry a piano,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, adding he planned to wear his mask through the winter.

Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this story.