Use It or Lose It: Tenant Aid Effort Nears a Federal Cutoff

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Looking to expand aid, Mayor Jim Kenney announced in early March that the city would budget $50 million for a five-year program to assist low-income households. It would also run an experiment, giving one group of households rental vouchers while another group of families got unrestricted cash assistance.

The coronavirus ended that by blowing a hole in the city’s budget. But the CARES Act added some $60 million in new funds, some through the state and some in direct federal support to cities. The catch was that it had to be spent quickly. And that’s where Mr. Heller’s group came in.

Mr. Heller, 39, has spent his career in the nonprofit world and has been a consultant on neighborhood development projects in two dozen cities. In 2016, he was appointed to run the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, a role he still holds, and last year he joined the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.

Money can come in an instant, but running new programs involves a bunch of mundane but important tasks. Mr. Heller’s organization could not take applications or distribute aid until it had built new information technology infrastructure, with a web portal for claims and 18 full-time employees to review applications and field calls.

The first phase was rolled out on May 12 and covered up to $2,500 in rent over three months. Within four days the city had 13,000 applicants. About a third were approved, consuming $10 million of the eventual $60 million.

At the same time, Pennsylvania used CARES Act money to start a separate rental-aid program. This was confusing to landlords and tenants, because while that money was also distributed through nonprofits like Mr. Heller’s, it had different criteria from Philadelphia’s program. The major distinction was that the state program would cover no more than $750 in rent, and to receive it property owners had to agree to forgive the balance, and to waive late fees and back rent. This caused a number of landlords — especially in Philadelphia, where the median rent is $1,600 — to balk. And without landlords’ consent, tenants couldn’t get the aid.

Victor Pinckney, a landlord and former president of HAPCO, a city landlords’ group, said the reason was simple: He and others didn’t want to take less than the market rent, or give up the right to collect back payments. “It was a no-brainer,” he said.

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