by Senators Art Haywood and Vincent Hughes
As we enter what should be a time of spiritual reflection of the year about to end, we are reminded of the failure of the majority in the General Assembly to help families across the commonwealth in 2020.
In May, a bipartisan proposal to use the commonwealth’s share of funds received from the CARES Act passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor. This proposal included assistance for education, healthcare industries, frontline workers, higher education and housing.
As part of our robust response to the first wave of COVID-19, new programs were legislated and built quickly. Under the leadership of Sen. Art Haywood, our caucus secured $175 million for rental and mortgage assistance.
Unfortunately, the $175 million allocated for the Mortgage and Rental Assistance Grant Program had too many restrictions. A week into the program, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) flagged issues they were hearing from counties, who have been tasked with administering the Mortgage and Rental Assistance Grant Program. Among these issues were a lack of participation by landlords because the maximum rent was too low.
Pennsylvania Senate Democrats immediately reacted to this information from the PHFA. We convened interested parties, PHFA, the Housing Alliance, landlord associations and housing advocates, to discuss what did and did not work in the Mortgage and Rental Assistance Grant Program.
These conversations with interested groups resulted in the introduction of Senate Bill 1290. This proposal was endorsed by various statewide associations representing both landlords and tenants.
Proposed changes to the program in the bill were uniformly supported by all testifiers at a Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee hearing September 8. A day after that hearing, a House Republican introduced companion legislation to the Senate Democratic proposal and with time running out, Gov. Wolf took limited executive action to fix aspects of the program.
Then, more than two months after the introduction of Senate Bill 1290, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the House companion bill. The Senate leadership failed to approve the House bill or Senate Bill 1290 and went home.
If the majorities in the General Assembly had acted in September, those changes to the program would have quickly exhausted the $175 million available — ensuring that it got to the Pennsylvanians who needed it most.
Unfortunately, the majority party in the General Assembly decided it would be better to send $108 million dollars from the Mortgage and Rental Assistance Grant Program to the Department of Corrections to offset their costs associated with COVID-19. This same approach was used to put $1.3 billion of CARES money that was meant for people in need into the state budget instead.
A Spotlight PA article reported than an estimated 240,000 Pennsylvania families could face eviction in January. Moreover, estimates from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health found that expiring eviction and foreclosure moratoria could lead to 400,000 excess COVID-19 cases and over 10,000 excess deaths.
Taking more than $100 million from a program with potential to protect homeowners and renters across the commonwealth is akin to the Grinch stealing the roast beast from the Whoville families.
No family who has suffered a change in their financial circumstances because of COVID-19 should have to worry about putting food on their table or paying to keep a roof over their head. It is during difficult and trying times that government should work to protect families from falling into economic ruin and homelessness.
The inability of the Republicans in the General Assembly to enact meaningful changes to a program that all housing groups believed could have prevented evictions and foreclosures is a tragedy. While we reflect on 2020 in the coming days, we hope that the majorities in the General Assembly will recognize their inaction as a failure to protect the commonwealth’s citizens.
Senator Arthur Haywood represents Pennsylvania’s 4th Senatorial District, which encompasses parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
Senator Vincent Hughes represents Pennsylvania’s 7th Senatorial District, which encompasses parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.