With one month to go before the end of the Covid-19 eviction moratorium, local officials say they are doing everything they can to push out rental and utility assistance to the households who need it.
"We're trying to be proactive," said Justin Eby, executive director of the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.
His organization is overseeing the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP. It has nearly $48 million available to help Lancaster County renters adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Additional funding from the state is pending, Eby said.
The nationwide eviction moratorium, imposed by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, protects households who can't pay rent due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic. Its end, previously scheduled for today, was postponed to July 31; the CDC says this is the final extension. (On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, allowed the moratorium to stay in place.)
Eviction Prevention Network
To reach tenants, the redevelopment authority is working with a dozen and a half community organizations throughout the county. Many are part of the Eviction Prevention Network, an initiative begun shortly before the pandemic.
As of last week, ERAP had fielded 2,272 applications. Of those, 435 have been approved and 200 are under review.
The remaining 1,637, or 72%, are incomplete, lacking some or all of the required documentation.
That doesn't mean they're denied, Eby stressed. But officials can't move forward until they get the missing information.
Critics in the community say the program is not delivering as promised, leaving families at risk of imminent eviction. A group of residents complaints' about the situation took up a lengthy segment of county commissioners' meeting on June 23.
A close look at ERAP shows those complaints are "unfounded," Commissioner Ray D'Agostino told One United Lancaster.
On Tuesday, D'Agostino and his fellow commissioners grilled Eby about ERAP at their morning work session. Eby assured the county leaders that applications are being processed promptly and that funds are being sent out within days once they're approved.
There have been just a handful of denials, he said, and they have been for clear-cut reasons: An applicant lives outside Lancaster County; or earns too much to meet the income limits; or is seeking help with a mortgage, not a lease.
With everyone else, the issue is incomplete paperwork, Eby said. Accordingly, the redevelopment authority and its partners are stepping up outreach to applicants, through email and follow-up calls, to let them know what they need to do, he said.
Lancaster County Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP)
- Full information and application materials are available at Lancasterhelp.rent.
- Applicants can receive in-person assistance in English, Spanish and other language at partnership agencies throughout Lancaster County (see lancasterhelp.rent for a full list)
- The application is a TWO STEP PROCESS: Applicants first pre-qualify, then upload the necessary documentation.
- If you have any questions, or believe your application was improperly denied, call the ERAP Help Line, (717) 590-3101, or visit one of the partnering agencies.
The bigger picture
While ERAP has the potential to help thousands of households, it is not a cure-all for the problems in Lancaster County's rental market. Even before the pandemic, rents were climbing and vacancies were scarce.
The pandemic exacerbated those conditions: Tenfold, the housing and financial assistance nonprofit, is hearing of rent increases of 25% or more, CEO Mike McKenna said.
Unfortunately, he said, landlords who participate in ERAP can still demand higher rent, or choose not to renew tenants' leases. The organizations administering ERAP can't stop them: Nothing in the enabling legislation gives them that authority.
"Someone could receive a significant number of months of assistance and ultimately still lose their housing," McKenna said. "That is pretty heartbreaking."
McKenna also said some of the families seeking ERAP assistance are having difficulty documenting the link between their hardships and Covid-19, as ERAP requires. For those who can't, Tenfold is trying to help using other funding, but those pots of money are more limited, he said.
"Those folks are very frustrated," he said.
The county's magisterial district judges, who hear eviction proceedings, have been notified about ERAP. That creates another avenue for awareness of the program; and potentially a pathway to forbearance, if landlords agree to hold off on further action while their tenants apply.
"We want landlords ... to work with tenants and work with us and we can get those arrears paid, including court costs and late fees," Eby said.
So far in 2021, eviction levels in Lancaster County have been more or less at normal levels, according to court administrative data. There's no indication a spike has occurred or that one is pending, Eby told the commissioners.