City to open new COVID assistance program for rent, utilities

The next phase of Philadelphia’s rental assistance program is on track to launch this week. City officials expect the tenant aid program to kick up right as Philadelphia courts lift a hold on evictions for nonpayment that has been in effect since the pandemic began last year.

Supported by more than $97 million in federal aid, including money coming from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, this latest iteration of the rental assistance program will be better funded than prior phases, Greg Heller, Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. senior vice president of community investment said.

Since May 2020, the city has spent over $65 million on rental assistance for all three previous phases. This phase alone will have at least $97 million more.

Heller described previous phases as “put together with duct tape and string.”  With more money, PHDC upped their staffing and updated their infrastructure based on past missteps.

Are you eligible?
Tenants are eligible if their annual earnings fall at or below 80% of the area median income, which is  $77,300 for a family of four or they qualify for unemployment benefits. Tenants are also eligible if they can show they’ve experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic and can demonstrate that they are at risk for experiencing homelessness.

Tenants with an income below 50% of the AMI, which is $48,300 for a family of four, or unemployed for more than three months will get priority.

Tenants going through the city’s eviction diversion are also being prioritized. The eviction diversion program will be funded until August 2022.

Tenants can demonstrate they are at risk of homeleness by showing evidence of past-due rent, utilities, receiving an eviction notice, or paying over a third of their income on rent.

Tenants are allowed to apply again if they’ve already received assistance but cannot get any for a month if you’ve received assistance from the previous phases in the same month.

How can I apply?
The city will be taking online applications or people apply by phone with the help of a housing counselor.

The landlord pre-registration has opened already and landlords are encouraged to use it to streamline the process. The appeal is that if a landlord’s information is already in the system, it can be auto-inserted when the tenant applies when the application opens at the end of the month.

Heller said the goal is to reduce the time from point of application to point of receiving assistance to no more than two weeks. That being said, a lot depends on how quickly both parties — tenant and landlord— submit documentation, he said.

“A lot of the time lag, unfortunately, is waiting for a tenant or a landlord to respond and complete information,” Heller said.

Tenants will need documents to demonstrate income. Landlords will need evidence to show they own the property if the name on the deed is different than their own. Property managers will need documentation to show they have the right to make decisions or accept payment on behalf of the owner.

Both landlords and tenants can apply but if the landlords apply, they need written consent from the tenant.

How much aid can you get?
Tenants can get rent assistance for up to 18 months in total — including both back and future rent. Because of federal guidelines, no more than three months of future rent can be provided at a time. Also, tenants will have to reapply every three months and demonstrate they need more assistance.

The total amount of assistance can’t be over $2,000 per month. That sum can cover late fees or whatever other charges have been passed by the landlord.

All rent assistance can only be used for rent after April 2020. Tenants with back rent owed have to pay at least one month in arrears before applying for future rent.

Payments for rent will go to the landlords but if the landlord refuses or doesn’t respond, then payments go to the tenant. Payments will be dispersed electronically so banking information is required.

Rules for landlords
Landlords must use approved rent assistance for months after April 2020.  If assistance is received, landlords can’t begin eviction proceedings until at least three months have passed since the last month of rental help.

Federal guidelines require that a landlord has to be notified that their tenant applied for rental assistance three times over a 10-day period before it can be considered that the landlord was unresponsive.

Aid for your utilities
This is also the first round of rental assistance that also includes utility help. The help can be provided for 18 months total and have to be accrued on or after March 13, 2020. The payments can only be used for current and past bills, not for future months.

Assistance can be provided for up to $2,000 for Philadelphia Gas Works and $2,000 for PECO. All utility aid will go directly to the respective companies. If the landlord puts the cost of utilities onto the tenant, then those costs can be tacked onto the rent section.

Updates to the system
In previous phases, applicants had to insert all information at once. Now, people are allowed to save their work and come back to it.

Also, both landlords and tenants will be able to get notifications on their application process through text messages or email.

From WHYY


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