Harrisburg – March 31, 2021 – At the request of state Senators Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Art Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia), and Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia), the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual public hearing on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the existing housing crisis in Pennsylvania.
“For too long, the struggles of Pennsylvanians to find housing, and to stay housed, have been rendered invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a crisis that has been generations in the making, and which is endemic to a society that treats housing as a commodity, rather than as a right. As legislators, we have an opportunity, right now, to listen to our constituents—to make these struggles visible—and to furnish legislative solutions to mitigate decades of neglect and harm,” Sen. Saval said.
To address the worsening crisis that COVID-19 has created, Saval has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) that would create a framework for mortgage deferment and rent forgiveness, benefitting property owners and renters alike. Senate Bill 466, the Housing Security Act, would mandate mortgage deferment processes for both homeowners and landlords with tenants unable to keep up with their rent.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how critical housing is in living a healthy, stable life,” Sen. Hughes said. “We have seen looming eviction crises and many of our people have been constantly at the risk of losing shelter for more than a year. Some have lost their homes and been forced to find other means to survive in the middle of a pandemic. There is something wrong with this picture. The legislature must take steps to address housing access and insecurity immediately, so that our people can have peace of mind as we emerge from this pandemic and beyond.”
While there have been eviction moratoriums set in place throughout the pandemic at the federal, state, and local level, there are still millions of Pennsylvanians who are behind on their rent.
Through Act 1 of 2021 of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, $569 million was allocated for Pennsylvania households for housing relief, and an additional $278 million has been allocated for emergency rental assistance.
However, all who testified at the hearing today acknowledged that while many more Pennsylvanians are now facing eviction, foreclosure, and housing instability than before the pandemic hit last year, housing issues are nothing new for Pennsylvanians.
“The Chester County Department of Community Development facilitates the annual Point in Time Count, a national effort sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The purpose of this initiative is to determine the number of people currently experiencing homelessness on a given night, to better understand homelessness in Chester County and across the nation,” said Katelyn Malis, Director of Programs at Open Hearth Inc. in Chester County. “The night of 2020’s count there were 499 sheltered and 23 unsheltered individuals for a total of 522 people experiencing homelessness in Chester County and this data pre-dates COVID-19.”
Jessica Lopez of Lancaster County also shared her experience of housing insecurity and issues of unsafe living conditions that were ignored by her landlord, both before and during the pandemic.
“A pipe burst in the ceiling the first week we were here. And then everything shut down because of the pandemic and I lost my job. I’ve been barely hanging on for the past year while I’ve watched friends illegally get evicted,” Lopez said. “I did everything I could, working two jobs, and I still couldn’t find a safe home for my kids. This is a systemic problem. Me and now my kids have been set up to fail. I shouldn’t have to be a superhero to just provide safe shelter for my kids and get them a good education.”
Julie Barry, an Erie County resident, PhD candidate, and social worker, also described how difficult it was for her to rent or buy a home after having losing housing, childcare, and food assistance because she finally got a job in her field and made $2 more than the income limit to qualify for any assistance .
“I am thankful that I can afford housing, I just can’t necessarily find quality housing,” Barry said. She said that even though she is solidly middle class, she cannot get a mortgage to buy a home because she has so much student debt now, and many landlords will not rent to her because she has four children living with her currently and is a single mother even though she can afford to live there.
Barry said that the legislature should do more to regulate leases and landlords. She said that holding the landlords accountable for the quality of their units is essential, as is allowing people to break leases more easily if their living situation becomes untenable.
“The present health pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for these measures. The General Assembly should enact legislation at this time to robustly fund legal assistance for lower-income renters in eviction proceedings and require “good cause” for all residential lease terminations in the Commonwealth,” Kevin Quisenberry, Litigation Director of the Community Justice Project, said in his testimony.
Sen. Shariff Street (D- Philadelphia) said at the hearing that in listening to the testimony, and hearing many complaints from his constituents, it is clear that these housing and rental assistance programs that were set up to help people in the exact situations many of the testifiers found themselves in, these programs are not working as intended. He said that a thorough examination of these programs is clearly needed, as is evaluating how the state funds, or underfunds, these programs.
“We can address the housing crisis by expanding PHARE, the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement fund, managed by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). By increasing funding for PHARE, the program will create affordable housing for low-to-moderate income people,” Sen. Haywood said.
The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) also announced that they would end the statewide moratoriums on utility shutoffs for things such as gas, water, electricity at the end of March 2021. It is estimated by Community Legal Services the resumption of shutoffs will put at least 847,000 households at imminent risk of losing utility services.
“On April 1, 2021, utilities will be permitted to shut off critical utility services to millions of Pennsylvania homes as a means of collecting well over $850 million in residential utility debts accrued throughout the pandemic. Some utilities have plans to begin terminations immediately on April 1, while others will move forward more slowly – rolling out termination notices over the next few weeks. Just 9 days after terminations begin, on April 9, 2021, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is scheduled to close to new applicants,” said Elizabeth Marx, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project.
To address the utility crisis in Pennsylvania that has been greatly increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Marx recommends improving the availability and accessibility of federal assistance dollars, strengthening consumer protections and debt collections policies, enhance existing universal service programming, and establishing equitable cost recovery of pandemic related expenses.
“Access to affordable housing was a major struggle pre-pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has increased this struggle, making affordable housing almost impossible with many throughout our Commonwealth unable to pay rent or mortgages,” said Senator Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. “Government at all levels needs to invest in people so this struggle ends, and all Pennsylvanians can live with dignity and security.”
Below are all who testified in today’s hearing:
- Chapri Kelly, Philadelphia Resident
- Ashley Butler, Allegheny County Resident
- Julie Barry, Erie County Resident
- Jessica Lopez, Lancaster County Resident
- Carrie Bach, Chief Operations Officer, Voices for Independence
- Willamae McCullough, homeowner from Philadelphia
- Katelyn Malis, Director of Programs, Open Hearth Inc.
- Kevin Quisenberry, Litigation Director, Community Justice Project
- Rachelle Erica Faroul, Lead Researcher of Philadelphia Renters Report, “COVID-19’s Impact on Race and Housing Security Across Philadelphia”
- Elizabeth Marx, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Utility Law Project
The full recording of this hearing, as well as the written testimony presented at the hearing, can be found at senatormuth.com/policy. A full recording of this hearing can also be found on the PA Senate Democratic Facebook page.