This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

Current recipients of rent relief in Allegheny County won’t get payments for months beyond May, and the cutoff date for new applications is March 31, the Department of Human Services has announced.

County officials and nonprofit administrators spent two months weighing options for stretching the available federal funds and keeping the Emergency Rental Assistance Program [ERAP] afloat.

“We’re making this announcement when there’s still $65 million in the program just to let people know that it’s going to end for them three months from now,” said Chuck Keenan, the housing coordinator for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS].

ERAP’s end is likely to have a profound impact on the cases that come before Allegheny County Housing Court, which handles appeals of decisions made by the district judges who initially rule on landlord-tenant cases.

“In 100% of my cases, that’s the first question: ‘What’s the ERAP status here?’” said Common Pleas Judge Patrick Connelly, who handles Allegheny County Housing Court. “It’s probably relevant in 90% of the cases.”

Connelly’s court is part of a system that has been developed since mid-2019 and bolstered in response to the pandemic. Now tenants facing eviction can tap help desks, pro bono attorneys and two mediation programs.

For the past year, ERAP has been the most important tool for addressing troubled rental housing arrangements. It covers as much as 15 months of rent and utility payments for people who have suffered financially due to the pandemic, are at risk of homelessness and have household incomes below 80% of the area median income.

“You couldn’t have a better tool than a stash of money that’s there that benefits both the landlord and the tenant,” said Connelly.

Since March 2021, some 14,000 households have received $85 million through ERAP. An even larger number of applications are in the queue, with around 100 new ones coming every day to ACTION-Housing, the nonprofit hired by the county to administer the program.

PublicSource

A snapshot of the Allegheny Analytics dashboard showing the stages of processing for nearly 30,000 ERAP applications, the continued flow of new applications, the number for which payment has been made and the amount of assistance paid as of Feb. 25, 2022.

But more than half of the federal COVID-19 emergency funding that underwrites ERAP is spent. That drove the county’s announcement that:

  • Current recipients of ERAP won’t be paid rent beyond May.
  • Households that have applied for ERAP and qualify, but have not yet been paid, can also receive rent and utility aid through May.
  • Any household that applies by the end of March, and qualifies, can receive rent and utility benefits as long as the funding holds out.

According to documents provided to PublicSource in response to a Right-to-Know Law request, ACTION-Housing officials have been raising the potential ramifications of ERAP’s end for months.

If ERAP benefits end abruptly, ACTION-Housing General Counsel Kyle Webster warned in a Jan. 12 email to county officials, “We will have hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants show up demanding the next month and then freaking out that it’s not available to them.”

The county will now alert ERAP recipients and human service providers to the impending end of the program.

“That’s how we’re going to eliminate the freakout,” said Keenan.

ERAP and pandemic-era change

At a hearing conducted remotely in February, landlord Beverly Visnesky said she wanted tenant Stacy Berry out. Not only was she behind on rent, but she was operating a dog grooming business from the West Mifflin rental house.

Berry, a restaurant worker, argued that she should be allowed to stay because she had received an ERAP award letter in late January and was awaiting payment. Visnesky countered that she was already down $3,000.

“I’m not the one who writes the checks, ma’am,” said Connelly. “I believe that you will be paid by ERAP shortly.” He allowed the case to continue — and Berry to remain housed — pending an April arbitration hearing at which the dog grooming issue could be argued.

Connelly only gets the most hotly contested eviction cases.

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Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Patrick Connelly. Photo courtesy of the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania Administrative Office.

When landlords want to oust tenants, they first file complaints at the offices of neighborhood district judges. Pre-pandemic, those judges handled some 13,000 landlord-tenant cases per year and ruled in favor of landlords roughly 85% of the time. Those rulings can lead to the forcible ouster of tenants by constables.

In 2020 and 2021, though, a series of governmental moratoriums, curbs and procedural changes reduced evictions in Allegheny County and elsewhere. Now Allegheny County Department of Human Services employees attend district court hearings to help tenants to get ERAP benefits. Judges sometimes nudge the parties toward the Just Mediation dispute resolution program. In the city, tenants can now get free legal representation.

PublicSourceRoughly 10% of district court landlord-tenant decisions are appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Until mid-2019, such appeals were randomly assigned to judges on the arbitration bench.

“Under the old system, the tenants just got rolled over. Rolled over with a steamroller,” said Administrative Judge Christine Ward. “There was nobody to help them navigate the court system.”

A new court with a powerful tool

Armed with an 11-year-old state law that allows counties to create special housing courts, Ward in 2019 ordered all landlord-tenant appeals to flow to a single judge. Since then, she and Connelly have built a system that now includes:

  • A Housing Court Help Desk that guides tenants and landlords on the court’s procedures and sometimes directs them to ERAP help
  • Attorneys from the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership who represent tenants who meet income guidelines
  • Another mediation system in which landlords and tenants negotiate resolutions that then receive Connelly’s signature
  • Arbitration panels of lawyers who hear evidence and provide rulings that either side can then appeal
  • Trials before Connelly when arbitration decisions are appealed.

“As a housing court judge, I can focus on these issues,” said Connelly. “I deal with these issues every day, multiple times a day.”

It’s getting harder. Even though ERAP is only a year old, it covered overdue rent going back to the early pandemic. As a result, tenants whose rental arrearages started in 2020 are hitting the 15-month limit on benefits.

Also complicating matters is the tight market for affordable housing, said Connelly.

“You have a landlord that wants the tenant out. You have a tenant that wants to leave, and has nowhere to go. That’s the problem,” the judge said. “Without more affordable housing in Allegheny County, you’re going to have busy housing courts.”

Out of money by summer

The county and City of Pittsburgh received $165 million in federal funding for ERAP and combined it in a single pot. They are allowed to spend as much as $14 million on administration of the program, which is being handled primarily by ACTION-Housing.

Emails between ACTION-Housing and ACDHS indicate that in January, officials believed that ERAP would run dry by July.

PublicSourceThe county and ACTION weighed several options for stretching the funding, potentially into October, including:

  • Eliminating utility help from the program
  • Limiting the number of months of back rent the program will pay per applicant
  • Capping the number of future months of rent the program will pay for new applicants
  • Prioritizing the applications of households that face high risk of homelessness
  • Cutting off the application process after March.

The decision to stop applications in March and end most benefits with May’s rent might still allow some new applicants to receive benefits into June and perhaps beyond, county officials said.

The exact timing of ERAP’s expiration “is dependent on a number of factors including the number of applications, which has continued to remain high, and what funding is being requested in approved applications,” county officials wrote in an email response to PublicSource’s questions.

Statewide concerns

By the end of last year, half of Pennsylvania’s $1.3 billion rent relief pot was spent. The state Department of Human Services was unable to produce an updated figure by publication time. State Senate Democrats in a February press conference estimated that around two-thirds of the money was gone.

“I think we all agree that more rental assistance is needed, that some counties are very close to spending their ERAP allocation,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, during a Feb. 23 webinar on eviction prevention. “We’ve got a lot of people who make very low wages. We know that housing is getting more expensive.”

Legislation introduced by Senate Democrats would transfer another $500 million in federal pandemic-related assistance to counties that need to provide more rent relief. The bill has been referred to the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee.

Democratic legislators intimated in the press conference that the legislation faces Republican opposition. The Senate Urban Affairs and Housing chair, Indiana County Republican Joe Pittman, did not respond to phone or email messages last week.

Advocates are preparing for life after ERAP.

At the webinar, Housing Alliance staff trumpeted the Chester County Eviction Prevention Court as a potential model for other counties. Three of Chester County’s district judges have opted into a program in which tenants facing eviction promptly get information on rent relief, social services and legal representation options, according to Housing Alliance staff.

In the three participating courts, just 36% of cases ended in decisions in the landlord’s favor, versus 62% of the cases before judges who did not participate in the program. The program dramatically increased the numbers of cases that were settled or withdrawn by landlords, according to Chi-Hyun Kim, the Housing Alliance’s research and education manager.

PublicSource

Such efforts, said Kim, “involve a lot of shoe leather, but they’re resulting in outcomes that are, in fact, amenable to both of the parties.”

Housing Court already bustling

On a Thursday morning in February, at Allegheny County’s Housing Court Help Desk on the first floor of the City-County Building, supervisor Shawnell Smith handled a steady stream of tenants with troubles. “It’s been nonstop this morning,” she said.

PublicSource

Quinn Kobelak, right, a Housing Court Help Desk clerk, provides information to a tenant. Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource.

Smith had ACTION-Housing employees behind the desk with her, helping tenants who wanted to apply for ERAP. When they’re not present, she steers tenants with ERAP questions to a new Housing Stabilization Center at 415 Seventh Ave., Downtown.

The same morning, on the City-County Building’s 7th floor, a line of landlords, tenants and at least one child, waiting to sign in for Housing Court hearings, went from the intake desk out the courtroom door and down the hallway.

Housing Court hears cases every Thursday, and 24 eviction appeals were scheduled on that day. Case Management Coordinator Candice Malizio hurried from landlords to tenants, asking whether they were interested in mediation. In three cases, both parties agreed to mediation. Another eight went to arbitration. In other cases, one or both parties failed to show.

One disabled tenant told arbitrators that ERAP covered 15 months of rent and utilities, going back to July 2020 and ending in September. The landlord countered that the tenant had since racked up $3,000 in overdue rent and water bills. The arbitrators ruled that the landlord was due $1,800 and the tenant had to go.

Shortly after noon, the court had largely cleared and Malizio was happy that the three mediations had resulted in agreements. But she said she needed more lawyers to sign up to be mediators, arbitrators and pro bono counsel for indigent tenants.

“Because we’re going to blow up at the end of the year,” she predicted. “Whenever the rental assistance program is done, that is when we will see the onslaught of even more cases.”

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

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.