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COVID-19 eviction moratorium lifted

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Altoona Housing Authority tenant Andrea Butler took leave from her job to protect her health and that of her son and mother, because she has two autoimmune diseases, her son has one such disease and her mother babysat while Butler worked.

It led to financial problems, and Butler fell behind on rent, but the authority reached out, they established a repayment schedule, and Butler caught up within six weeks — because, although there was a moratorium on evictions, her rental obligation remained.

Butler’s case represents a favorable outcome for both parties, although the Aug. 1 expiration of the moratorium has led to warnings of widespread renter dislocation from tenant advocates — a concern somewhat assuaged by an extension this week until

Oct. 3 for counties reporting substantial or high COVID-19 transmission rates.

The Altoona Housing Authority began working early during the pandemic with tenants of both public housing and subsidized private Section 8 rentals — plus the Section 8 landlords — to ensure tenants understood that despite the moratorium, they still would owe rent when the moratorium ended, said authority Executive Director Cheryl Johns.

Through “diligent” intervention, the authority was able to enter into repayment agreements with all its tenants who were having trouble paying rent due to COVID-19 disruptions — sometimes with help from a program administered by the Blair County Community Action Agency, Johns said.

“We’re fine,” she said. “We’re not going to evict anyone.”

Things got “rough” for Butler for a while.

It didn’t help that there was a delay in receiving unemployment compensation, Butler said.

“But I managed,” she said.

The authority was “easy to work with,” as it has always been, “no matter (what the) situation,” Butler said. “They do what is right for anybody, as long as you do what is right by them,” she said.

Tenants have a lease, and they need to abide by it, she added.

Butler formerly provided in-home care.

When she returns to the workforce, after having a baby and taking time off to care for it — she’s due any day — she’ll be working in an office, she said.

Emergency aid

Blair County Community Action has provided $1.2 million in rent and utility help to 404 families through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program since mid-April, when the money became available, said its Executive Director Sergio Carmona.

About 850 other families have applied for the program, and those applications are at “some level of being processed,” Carmona said.

Those additional families represent “a good portion” — but hardly all — of total community need, he guessed.

The money for the program comes from the U.S. Treasury to the states and then to the counties, he said.

Community Action contracts with the Blair County Department of Social Services to administer the program here.

“The goal is to keep people in their homes,” by covering back rent, Carmona said.

It helps landlords as well, he said.

His agency promotes the program through community and homelessness programs, on social media and through TV and radio interviews.

Families can apply through the agency website, blaircap.org; they can call the office at 814-946-3651, extension 115; or stop by at 2301 Beale Ave. between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for a paper application.

The process is “a little cumbersome, and it takes a little time to process,” Carmona said.

Applicant families need to be directly or indirectly “affected” by the pandemic and to earn no more than 80 percent of area median income, Carmona said.

Those already receiving any kind of assistance through the Blair County Assistance office or the state qualify automatically for ERAP, he said.

Landlord offers help

Local landlord Brian Durbin has worked with four of his tenants to get help through ERAP.

“We’re in the business of housing people, not kicking them out,” Durbin said.

The four families — and two others he worked with whose unpaid rents were “minuscule” — are good tenants, he said.

“They just need assistance,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is displace them.”

Both tenants and landlords need to be willing, Durbin said.

All of his tenants who fell behind due to COVID-19 were willing, he said.

Moratoriums unfair

The rental moratoriums have gone on long enough, according to Lisa Hann, executive director of Family Services Inc., which operates a Blair County homeless shelter — and which is building a bigger one.

The recent federal reinstatement for people in counties with “substantial” or higher COVID-19 transmission rates was a mistake, because it can take away the incentive for people who need assistance from programs like ERAP from going through the trouble, because it gives cover for those who know they don’t qualify and because it encourages some who can afford to pay rent not to do so, Hann said.

Continued moratoriums are unfair to landlords, according to Hann.

“They’ve been on hold for too long,” she said. “You really can’t keep people in an endless limbo.”

Delays in getting paid can result in landlords being unable to cover debts, causing some to leave the business, she said.

“And there’s already a shortage of housing in the community,” Hann said.

Mirror Staff Writer

William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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