The state Department of Human Services is encouraging renters at risk of eviction or loss of utility service to apply for help through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program launched earlier this month.

A total of $847 million has been distributed among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to help thousands of families maintain their housing and utility services. Owners of rental properties can also apply for assistance on behalf of tenants.

 Lawrence County has received $5,624,150 from the program to serve eligible individuals and families in that capacity in Lawrence County. The grant is being administered by Lawrence County Social Services under contract with the county.

 The commissioners are providing funding from three pots of money to make payments to landlords and utility companies to make sure that renters' obligations are paid.

The funding is designated for residents who experienced a drop in income because of loss or reduction of work due to COVID-19.

Renters and homeowners can apply for rental and utility assistance through the website of Lawrence County Community Action Partnership, which is the umbrella organization of Lawrence County Social Services, located 241 W. Grant St. The agency's website is lccap.org. The phone number is 1 (800) 252-5104 or (724) 658-7258.

The county anticipates helping 400 to 600 households with the funding to make sure no one loses their residences or has utilities shut off. 

The program is administered under tight state and federal regulations for people who are at or below 80 percent of their average income per household. Income level charts for eligibility are available through LCCAP, and renters or individuals must have experienced a drop in income due to COVID-19, Boyd said.

For those who qualify, the funds are provided directly to the landlords and/or utility companies.

County commissioner chairman Morgan Boyd pointed out that since March 1 last year — in partnership with LCCAP — the county has assisted 175 households with rental assistance to help people remain in their homes during COVID-19. As of earlier this month, $420,451 had been paid for renters who faced income loss during COVID, paid directly to landlords, he said.

LCCAP additionally provided financial help to 24 households with direct rent assistance with $56,375 in total, through the county's Homelessness Assistance Program.

An additional 512 households also have been provided with case management services to get them the help they need over the same time frame, Boyd said.

"Don't be too proud to reach out," she said. "The money is there, and it's coming to our county to be used. If you know of someone struggling, make sure they're getting every bit of assistance they can get. There's really no reason for a person to be out of their home or homeless."

The $5 million that the county received does not require an eviction notice to work with clients, Tom Scott, LCCAP CEO, said. The agency can go back 12 months to work with clients in arrears, whether its gas sewer water trash or rent.

“This program has the potential to stabilize the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians in vulnerable housing situations," commented Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, who noted in a news release Wednesday that the money is first-come, first-served.

"I encourage Pennsylvanians who need assistance to avoid eviction or utility shutoffs to please apply for help through ERAP today,” Secretary Miller said. “The people who have borne the brunt of this pandemic deserve to see a light at the end of this tunnel.”

With federal funds allocated through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Wolf Administration built the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) in partnership with the General Assembly through Act 1 of 2021 to distribute about $569 million to Pennsylvania households through partnerships with local leaders. An additional $278 million in rental assistance was directly allocated to Pennsylvania’s largest counties by the federal government.

“This is a critically important program that keeps families from entering the homeless system due to the impact of COVID-19, while also making landlords whole so they can pay their mortgages and maintain their property,” said Megan Shreve, CEO of South Central Community Action Programs. “The sense of relief experienced by families and landlords is tremendous. The process is simple and doesn’t require a lot of paperwork and, in exchange, it gives folks a chance to rebuild what they lost during the pandemic.”

Twenty-two counties – including Lawrence — have opted to accept applications from county residents through their own application process.

However, residents of all counties can visit COMPASS for information on how to apply for ERAP, including residents of counties that have developed their own process. If a person tries to apply through COMPASS but indicates that they reside in one of the 22 counties with its own application, they will be provided with information about how to apply, including a link to the county application if available.

Applicants can also download and print an application or obtain an application from their county ERAP office. DHS has translated the paper application into Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Chinese and Cambodian and made those available to all participating counties.

Households may be eligible for up to 12 months of assistance to cover past-due or future rental and/or utility payments. The amount of a household’s monthly rent or utility bills does not preclude eligibility, but the amount of ERAP assistance provided to a household is determined by program administrators at the county level.

Assistance can be provided to a tenant for future rental payments, and for unpaid rental or utility arrears that were accrued on or after March 13, 2020 on a residential rental property. Counties may choose to provide additional assistance to eligible households if funds remain available.

Landlords do not have to agree to participate in the program for tenants to receive assistance.

To qualify for assistance, a household must be responsible to pay rent on a residential property and meet each of the following criteria:

•One or more household member has qualified for unemployment benefits, had a decrease in income, had increased household costs, or experienced other financial hardship due directly or indirectly to the COVID-19 pandemic;

•One or more individuals in the household can show a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability; 

•The household has an income at or below 80 percent of area median income, which varies by county. Income limits by county are available on the Department of Human Services website. Resources such as bank accounts and cars are not relevant to ERAP eligibility.

•Applicants will need to provide the head of household’s personal information, income information for all household members 18 and older, rental lease and amount owed and the landlord’s name and contact information. If applying for utility assistance, applicants must provide utility expenses and utility provider information.

•Applicants should be prepared to provide documents that substantiate information provided, such as pay stubs, tax filings, unemployment letters, and rental/utility arrears. However, if applicants do not have documents, county ERAP offices will work with applicants to obtain documents or written attestations.

The program will end when all funds have been expended. Per Act 1 of 2021, all funds must be spent by December 31, 2021.

More information about ERAP can be found at www.dhs.pa.gov.

(New Castle News reporter Debbie Wachter contributed to this report.)

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