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Program Provides Rent Relief to Centre County Residents Impacted by COVID-19 Pandemic

by on July 28, 2020 8:45 PM

At least 65 Centre County residents have applied for a federal program designed to provide rent relief to individuals who have lost their jobs or had their income reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, county Director of Adult Services Faith Ryan said on Tuesday.

The CARES Act Rent Relief Program provided Pennsylvania about $150 million for rental assistance, which is being administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and locally by the county Office of Adult Services.

CARES Act mortgage assistancewhich is not administered by the county, is also available through the PHFA. 

Opened on July 6, the county can accept applications for the Rent Relief Program through Sept. 30 and can provide up to six months of assistance through Dec. 30. Ryan said the program is countywide and on a first-come, first-served basis but believes there is funding to help plenty of residents who need it.

"The program is well-funded so I don’t think there will be a huge issue, at least as of this very moment, with supply of funding to help people," she told the Board of Commissioners. "We want to get the word out there to people that are choosing maybe not to get the assistance because they don’t have an eviction notice yet to please get assistance now. Because the second that eviction moratorium lifts, whether it’s the end of August, whether the governor extends it to the end of the calendar year, there will come a time when it lifts. Now is the time to get the help that you need, so please don’t wait."

The program provides a maximum of $750 per month or $4,500 total to renters who have lost their jobs since March 1 or who have had an income reduction of at least 30% because of the pandemic.

"[The $750 maximum] is in the CARES legislation and as much as PHFA tried to increase that to at least $1,000 there was no budging," Ryan said. "So we can’t budge either."

Landlords or property managers must agree to accept $750 as the full month's rent payment even if the regular rent is more than that and by participating are attesting that they will not take the tenant to court for the remaining balance.

"That said, when we work with someone that has a rent higher than $750 we remind them and we remind the landlord of this piece and we also suggest they make a good-faith effort to pay any type of balance to the landlord or property manager," Ryan said. "While it’s not required, we do understand both parties are struggling and we also think it’s really good for the relationship moving forward."

Ryan said funds are "fluid" throughout the state and based on need, but she anticipates a total allocation of up to about $2.3 million, which would equal 511 households receiving full assistance for six months.

"That’s double my operating budget," she said.

Eligible households cannot have income exceeding the 100% of Centre County’s Area Median Income, which is adjusted for household size:

1 household member - $62,100 

2- $71,000 

3- $79,900 

4 - $88,700, 

5-  $95,800

6 - $102,900

7 - $110,000

8 - $117,100

Tenants, or landlords on their behalf, can apply.

Applications are available at phfa.org/pacares/rent.aspx and at all four Centre County YMCA locations. Once completed, they can be sent to Centre County Government, Office of Adult Services, Attn: Faith Ryan, 3500 E. College Ave. Suite 1200, State College PA 16801 or [email protected].

Each application requires a lessee household certification or renter application, landlord application and landlord/property certification, each of which is available on the PHFA website. If unemployed, applicants should provide a letter of unemployment or note if one has not yet been received. Names and social security numbers are also submitted to PHFA to be checked with the Department of Labor and Industry for eligibility based on unemployment status.

"This has been incredibly helpful for families that have not been able to produce information or have a very unique situation with their unemployment benefit," Ryan said. "When it says green and it’s eligible, to me green means go and you’re getting the assistance."

If the applicant has had reduced income, they need to provide copies of income documents from January through their most recent paycheck. A copy of the tenant's lease and ownership documentation from the landlord or property manager are also required.

Ryan said that her office notifies applicants of receipt within seven to 10 business days, but currently it's been less than five and for emailed applications even less. From there, the office has 30 days to approve or deny the application. If documentation is missing, the applicant has 30 days to provide it.

For each month of requested assistance, the applicant is reassessed to determine eligibility but does not have to submit an application each time.

Not all landlords are willing to participate because of the $750 maximum or because they are unable to provide certain documentation, Ryan said. 

"When that happens we work with the tenants to try to identify other services or keep them on our radar for when other programming that we’re aware of comes down the pike," Ryan said.

Many "mom-and-pop" landlords have applied and have been flexible with their tenants, however. 

"They’ve been great to work with and as long as they can provide the documentation that we’re requesting and as long as the tenant is eligible we should be able to process it," Ryan said.

Some corporate-owned rentals have seen hold ups, Ryan said, because their legal teams need to review the language of the application or because their local property managers face delays in getting approval or documentation from out-of-state headquarters. 

Residents who may be current on their rent, but know they will be facing issues in the coming months can apply now and be reassessed.

"If a household’s rent is current but it’s expected they will need help in the future they can apply for the rent relief program now and their eligibility will be reassessed on a monthly basis," Ryan said. "That’s really critical knowing we cannot receive any new ones after September 30. We’ve had a couple of people that have applied and they have been current up to July so we processed the application and set them aside for August to be contacted again."

Some applications have come from Penn State student renters or their co-signer parents, Ryan said. 

"We’re trying to figure out if the student meets the criteria," she said. "But there are a lot of questions arising about co-signers and parents being laid off and that being income. I don’t have a response yet from the grantor and because they’re [usually] so quick to respond I think they’re trying to figure out the answer as well.

"I really feel for a lot of these parents. Whether they’re in Centre County or another state, they are really struggling to figure out how to maintain this rent payment, how to keep their own credit high and help to not bomb their own kids’ credit because of the situation. We do have limitations There may be times where we just can’t find the person eligible, but we do ask a lot of questions to these parents and students to see if there’s any possibility to provide help."

The CARES Act Rent Relief Program can only be used for back rent. Households that need assistance with a security deposit or first month's rent may be eligible for the county's regular Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program and should call the Office of Adult Services at 814-355-6768. 

With the funding of the federal Rent Relief Program, Ryan said resources for the county's other housing assistance programs have been freed up.

"We’re definitely really busy, but we’ve been very, very fortunate with this program that we can triage most people to it since it’s currently available, which has actually opened up some space with our Rental Assistance Program," Ryan said. "That’s a fund that we have $9,800 a month that usually within 15 minutes to three business days it’s gone. I actually didn’t even spend the whole amount this month because I kept it specifically for people that needed a security deposit or some other thing that didn’t qualify for this [federal] program."

She added that the office was also able to set aside other state affordable housing funds to utilize for people with unique circumstances that aren't eligible for other programs.

"We’re trying to be as flexible as possible and help as many people as we can," she said.

In addition to the Rent Relief Program, the Office of Adult Services also has received a $341,549  Emergency Solutions Grant for emergency homeless shelter services and homeless prevention programs and $190,000 in CARES Act Housing Assistance Program funding allocated by the state and is expecting $17,745 in funds from the Home4Good program for housing assistance.

Ryan said the Rent Relief Program has provided welcome funds, but her office typically has a small staff with three full-time employees. That was down to one, with one position vacant until the end of the month and another on leave. To assist with administering the program and other traditional assistance programs, five additional staff from other human services departments have come on board, all of whom were trained within two weeks.

"It gives me shivers to say how appreciative I am of the people that have stepped up to help me in this incredibly crucial and critical time," she said. "It’s also really rewarding to see how we can work together as a human services department, no matter where we’re coming from."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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