Pennsylvania Latinos work to turn huge population gains into political muscle, but still face barriers
By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
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Hundreds of thousands of families across Pennsylvania could lose their homes in January, after emergency unemployment benefits and federal eviction protections expire and as the state grapples with record numbers of new coronavirus cases.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order has kept many eviction cases on hold for tenants across the state who have not been able to afford rent during the pandemic. It is for people like Cheryl Kull, who lives in an apartment in Bucks County with her mother. She owes her landlord more than $8,000, a small chunk of as much as $958 million in back rent owed by as many as 240,000 tenants across the state by January, according to one estimate.
If she, or other tenants, cannot pay and their eviction cases move forward, they will be kicked out.
The countdown to 2021, for Kull, is agonizing.
“I don’t even want to watch the news anymore,” she said.
Unless the CDC extends its ban, or Congress passes another COVID-19 relief package that includes further protections, tenants like her have little hope of staying in their homes. Even with the CDC order in place, loopholes and a lack of clear statewide guidance have let some who should be protected slip through the cracks.
Congress is considering a $908 billion plan put together by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which includes $25 billion for housing and rental assistance. But it’s come after months of stalemate, and the plan remains in flux while details are being negotiated.
Barring an extension, or immediate relief from Congress, an estimated 240,000 families — 15% of Pennsylvania renters will face eviction — according to an analysis by the nonprofit Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for state policy changes.
“[Government officials] don’t care about people who are struggling,” Kull said.
With less than four weeks until the ban expires, the public health consequences of eviction are more serious than ever.
The federal ban was put in place in September in an effort to control the coronavirus by keeping people in their homes and out of crowded shelters, or from moving into cramped living conditions with family and friends.
Yet Gov. Tom Wolf warned Monday that the health-care system is under strain as cases rise rapidly.
“Over the course of the past two weeks, Pennsylvania’s situation has become even more dire,” said Wolf, who announced Wednesday he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“If the worst happens, hospitals will not be able to treat all sick Pennsylvanians,” he said. “That is simply unacceptable.”
Unemployment funds through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act are also expiring at the end of the year. An estimated 480,000 Pennsylvanians will be cut off from this additional unemployment money, often used to offset costs of living, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a policy research nonprofit.
If Congress passes the $908 billion package, it could reinstate some of that money.
“Inaction by Congress could mean that millions of American families will enter the New Year with little or no means of support,” the report warned.
When the virus struck, Kull said, her work as a massage therapist all but evaporated, as in-person contact became a dangerous liability. Demand from her clients plummeted.
“Once COVID came, nobody wanted me in their home,” she said.
A series of state eviction bans protected her and her mother through the spring and summer. Then, on Sep. 1, the same day Pennsylvania’s eviction ban expired, the CDC announced its own set of protections.
To be covered, tenants had to send their landlords a signed declaration, certifying that they had experienced a “substantial” loss of income, and were making “best efforts” to pay as much rent as possible and to get help from government assistance programs. The ban only covers tenants who earn less than $99,000 per year.
Kull said she sent the form to her landlord in September, putting her eviction case on hold.
She has been trying to get help from a county rental assistance program, although she said an intake worker does not think it will cover the thousands she owes.
A hearing in her eviction case, which was filed in September, is scheduled for Jan. 11.
“I hope I have more work by then,” Kull said. “If not, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Not all eviction filings end with a tenant actually having to leave the property: Some work out agreements with their landlords, enter into payment plans, or manage to catch up on back rent before being removed. Cases also take time to work their way through the courts, so the anticipated surge of evictions could be spread out over weeks or months.
“There’s no way to tell for certain how many households will be evicted,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for tenants. But, she said, “it definitely looks scary.”
As the amount of rent owed continues to climb, so does the financial pain of landlords. The lost income is particularly difficult for those who own only a handful of units and rely on rental income to cover maintenance costs, mortgage payments, and property taxes.
“The way things are going right now is simply not sustainable for these small businesses,” Brianna Westbrooks, government affairs manager at the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, said at a hearing held by Philadelphia City Council’s housing committee in October.
Some property owners had gone seven months without collecting rent, she said.
Only Congress has the resources to allocate funding for rent relief on the scale required to avoid a surge of evictions, said Kathryn Reynolds, a policy program manager at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit. In Pennsylvania, the rental shortfall could be as much as $958 million, according to the National Council of State Housing Agencies report.
Even if a deal is struck before the end of the year, Reynolds said, there’s no guarantee the money would reach tenants that quickly.
“It could take months for the funding to get out there,” she said.
And the state’s efforts to use federal CARES Act money to shore up the rental market have floundered. Pennsylvania’s major rent relief program stopped taking applications Nov. 4 and will likely end with millions of dollars unused. Bureaucratic obstacles in the law creating the program — including a $750 monthly cap on rental payments and onerous paperwork requirements — left many eligible tenants unable to get help.
GOP leaders in the state Senate did not consider a bill to fix those issues, saying that limited administrative steps taken by Wolf to improve the program went far enough. After passing the budget in late November, the state legislature is not due back in session until next year.
A CDC spokesperson said the agency could not discuss whether the eviction ban would be extended due to pending litigation. The National Apartment Association, a trade association that represents more than 55,000 property owners, has challenged the ban in a federal lawsuit, arguing it denies landlords access to the courts and the agency did not have the authority to issue it.
If an extension does occur, there are still loopholes that leave some tenants vulnerable.
In September, when David Sulitz’s landlord tried to evict him and his family from their house in Monongahela, near Pittsburgh, over one month’s late rent, they were protected by the CDC order.
But their lease expired at the end of October. In November, the landlord filed another eviction case, citing the end of the lease rather than non-payment of rent, Sulitz said. The CDC order does not weigh in on the expiration of leases, and a lack of statewide guidance has led to differing interpretations in local courts.
Sulitz, 26, works as a carpenter and said he relies on the roughly $200 a week he receives in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a benefit expiring Dec. 26. He said he is applying for a home loan and looking for a new place, but the coronavirus surge “is just making everything ten times harder.”
Sulitz had been quarantining, waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test, and his hearing was postponed until Jan. 21.
“I’m just running out of time with everything right now,” he said.
By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
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