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Tenant Cities: Going It Alone In Allegheny County

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Jay Manning
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PublicSource
When DaJuan Davis learned that his application for rent relief was denied, exposing him and his son to another potential eviction, he felt “crushed.”";s:

Allegheny County officials realized last autumn that Pennsylvania’s CARES Rent Relief Program wasn’t helping many tenants and landlords here. So they made a decision apparently unique in the commonwealth: They largely ditched state rules, stopped spending state money, and opened the spigot on their own rent relief program.

 

Months before, in June, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald dedicated as much as $25 million in the county's federal CARES Act allocation to rent relief. The county used that money to double the state-set per-tenant maximum of $750 a month to $1,500, plus add as much as $200 in utility aid.

 

Initially, the county and its contractors, led by nonprofit ACTION-Housing, tried to pay some tenants using state funds, dished out through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency [PHFA], and others with the county CARES pot.

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They faced a deadline, though: Federal CARES rules demanded that the money be spent by year’s end. And navigating two separate programs was proving cumbersome. By early November, the county had accepted less than 11% of applications, and spent just $3.1 million, according to data the county provided in response to a right-to-know request.

 

By that time, the county largely stopped tapping the state program, instead paying landlords with its own funds.

"Given the need in the community, given the rapidly approaching end-of-the-year deadline, we decided to maximize the county throughput, just because it was moving faster and getting more relief to families at a quicker pace," said Lance Chimka, the county’s development director. "It was just, get the most amount of funds out the quickest to the most amount of households."

With 21 human services agencies rounding up and completing applications, payouts surged. By January, the county granted $14.7 million to 3,623 households, out of 7,572 applicants. Still, county officials admit the program was a rush job.

“We didn’t have a ton of time to set up an IT system and support and information system to track what we wanted to track in order to efficiently run the process," said Erin Dalton, who heads the Office of Analytics, Technology and Planning of  the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and has been named the department’s next director, effective in March. "We created a system where [applicants] couldn’t check in on where they were in the application process, creating hundreds upon thousands of calls that had to be returned.”

Where landlords worked closely with tenants, those problems were often surmounted.

Brandywine Agency, which manages 3,500 rentals, got $333,961 in rent paid via the program, the most among Allegheny County landlords. 

Brandywine President John Katz said his firm helped 134 families to get relief, but around 66 of his tenant households were denied. "There are people whose loss of income occurred in January or February, and their prospects for being rehired or getting their hours back after COVID came full swing, were terrible. But they were excluded because their circumstances were not explicitly caused by the pandemic,” Katz said. "I’m hoping that round two [of rent relief] can pick those families up.”

With vaccination going slowly, he added, “The world has not gotten better for my residents.”

Brandywine filed 21 eviction actions in the first three weeks of January 2021. Katz said some were filed against tenants who were far behind on rent and unwilling to communicate. Others were filed to help tenants to access aid programs that only pay when there’s clear threat of eviction.

“I believe that housing is a fundamental human right,” he said, “but until we as a society recognize it as such, I’m stuck operating in a system that requires collection action when rent is unpaid.”

Nearby counties drowning in documents

Counties without the scale to set up their own programs worked within the state’s rules.

Nonprofit ACTION-Housing ran the program in Armstrong County. One applicant, who had multiple employers, had to produce 81 documents to prove eligibility, according to Kyle Webster, the nonprofit's general counsel. 

His agency joined others in complaining. Eventually, he said, “PHFA fixed the easy stuff. We needed the state [General Assembly] to fix the other stuff. And that never happened.

In Westmoreland County, a few landlords wouldn't accept the program, instead viewing the crisis as "'my chance to get rid of this [problem tenant] finally,'" said Dan Carney, executive director of The Union Mission, which handled the program there.

 

In Beaver County, the “biggest challenges included incomplete applications that were missing documentation to substantiate eligibility,” wrote Lisa Signore, director of the Community Development Program of Beaver County, in response to questions. “We made attempts to contact those with incomplete paperwork and, in many cases, walked them through the process."

Allegheny County officials are proud that they covered $14.7 million in rent — just $736,000 of it came through the PHFA program — but recognize that it’s important to do better next time. The county is monitoring guidance coming out of Washington and preparing for its next round of rent relief. It will eventually decide whether to tap state funds, or run an independent program.

“This is our community. These are our friends. These are our neighbors,” said Dalton. “These are our families. … If any one of us were in that position, we would want those same opportunities and abilities to rise above what the pandemic has put us in.”

More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. PublicSource and WESA are exploring these changes and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter@richelord.