‘No room for profit’: Student renters, local landlords seek COVID-19 aid

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Dalia Maeroff | Staff Photographer

The federal CARES Act was passed in March and allocated $3.9 billion for Pennsylvania’s own CARES Rent Relief Program, aimed to help those struggling with COVID-related income loss and economic struggle.

By Maura Scrabis, Staff Writer

The national unemployment rate is more than double what it was at this point last year, leading many Americans to take a hard look at their finances during the COVID-19 pandemic. College students have been hit especially hard, as decreased hours and cancelled internships have made tuition and rent payments challenging.

Before navigating the application process, finding the right rent relief program can be difficult for some students. Kate Rempe, a senior psychology major, said she doesn’t recall seeing any advertised rent-related programs from either the University or other local organizations.

“If there were any resources advertised, I haven’t noticed or paid attention,” Rempe said. “So maybe at the very least they can make them more engaging.”

Rempe said while she is fortunate to receive help paying for monthly expenses and not worry about applying for rent assistance programs, she is concerned for students who do need assistance.

“Some students really do need that help, and don’t have their parents paying for rent,” Rempe said.

For those who need help paying rent during the pandemic, the University’s Student Emergency Assistance Fund allows students to apply for up to $600 if they meet the necessary requirements, and approved allocations are paid via PittPay. Pitt created the fund in April of this year to help students cover overdue utility bills and expenses upon imminent eviction, among other emergency expenses. The fund granted more than $250,000 to students by the end of May.

But Rempe said her monthly expenses usually exceed $600, which is why she believes there should be more assistance available.

“I think if they can increase the amount of assistance available, they should,” Rempe said. “Usually utilities run up the cost of the rent quite a bit, and pandemic life has made money even tighter.”

The Off-Campus Living Office also provides an in-depth rental guide for students looking to live off-campus. Their website includes a list of suggested questions to ask a potential landlord, links to resources to help with pest control and utility problems, safety tips and a culmination of available apartments with honest prices and descriptions.

Along with Pitt-specific resources, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — which was passed in March — assists renters and landlords. The bill includes several provisions that affect college students, including deferred student loan payments and money for carryover funding for university payments.

The CARES Act allocated $3.9 billion for Pennsylvania, according to the PA Housing Finance Agency. The General Assembly directed $175 million to PHFA for assistance for struggling renters and homeowners, of which about $150 million was set aside for rent assistance specifically.

Amie Downs, a spokesperson for Allegheny County, said the County has only received a small fraction of this total. She said the County received $22 million from PHFA and the County chipped in $14.5 million from its CARES funds for the rent relief program.

The program was met with some criticism after assistance payments were sent out slowly, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The County continues to process applications from previous months and send out payments, Downs said.

“When launched in July, the CARES Rent Relief Program had a deadline of Sept. 30,” Downs said, “but due to some of the regulations and restrictions at the state level was slow to start getting funds out to assist residents.”

Downs added that, as of last Friday, about 6,000 tenants have applied for assistance in Allegheny County, and it has assisted about 400 applicants.

As renters are struggling to make payments on time, Fred Deiuliis, a landlord in South and Central Oakland, said he is also struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“My income has been badly affected by COVID,” Deiuliis said. “I’ve considered applying for federal subsidies, but those are meant for companies with employees — my brother and I work for ourselves, so we don’t qualify.”
Deiuliis said he and his brother have tried to be reasonable and help students in any way they can. He said they returned deposits for students who decided not to live on campus this semester and evaluated the ways they could cut their rent.

“We’ve lowered our prices a little, but not much. We’re not luxury apartments,” Deiuliis said. “We’re making ends meet, but barely. After taxes, insurance and utilities, there’s no room for profit.”

While the County briefly stopped accepting applications for the CARES Rent Relief Program and Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program from Oct. 1 through Oct. 5, the deadline has since been moved to Nov. 4 after an executive order from Gov. Tom Wolf.

To qualify for assistance, renters must document at least a 30% reduction in annual income since March 1 related to the COVID-19 pandemic, or they must have become unemployed after March 1, according to a press release from PHFA. Those who qualify could receive up to 100% of their monthly rent, with a maximum of $750 a month to cover the time period between March 1 and Dec. 31 of this year.

Along with County- and University-based rent assistance programs, there are myriad other resources for those struggling financially:

  • United Way provides temporary financial assistance to those facing housing crises, offering rent subsidies for up to three months through its Housing Stabilization Program.
  • Renters can also receive rent assistance and other housing help from Allegheny Link.
  • Also providing rent relief to residents is the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, an organization created to “enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power and civil rights.”

Downs said anyone currently struggling with economic security is encouraged to apply to any program that suits their current situation.

“The County has a long history of helping people who are struggling to pay rent with numerous programs to help individuals and families stay in their home,” Downs said. “We will continue to offer other resources to residents for which funding is available, and other CARES Act money may be available in the coming months as well.”

Contributed reporting by Millicent Watt.

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