Use it or lose it: Renters’ help is nearing a federal border

Mayor Jim Kenney, seeking to expand aid, announced in early March that the city would allocate $ 50 million for a five-year program to help low-income households. It would also conduct an experiment in which one group of households received rental vouchers while another group of families received unlimited cash assistance.

The corona virus put an end to this by blowing a hole in the city budget. But the CARES Act added about $ 60 million in new funds, some through the state and some in direct federal aid 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 non-profit world and has been a consultant on neighborhood development projects in two dozen cities. In 2016, he was appointed to lead the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, a position he still holds, and last year joined the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.

The money can come in the blink of an eye, but running new programs involves a ton of mundane but important tasks. Mr. Heller’s organization was unable to accept applications or distribute aid until it built a new information technology infrastructure, with a claims web portal and 18 full-time employees to review applications and field calls.

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

At the same time, Pennsylvania CARES Act used money to set up a separate rental program. This was confusing for landlords and tenants, because while that money was also distributed through nonprofits like Mr. Heller’s, it had different criteria than the Philadelphia program. The main difference was that the state program would not cover more than $ 750 in rent, and to receive it, property owners had to agree to forgive the balance and forgo late fees and overdue rent. This caused a number of landlords – especially in Philadelphia, where the median rent is $ 1,600 – to withdraw. And without the landlords’ permission, tenants could not get the help.

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