Bucks County updates rent relief program, for previous and new applicants

Previous applicants to the BERA program may now be eligible to receive more assistance for any utility bills or rent that they still owe.

A sign is posted in New Hope, Pa., upon entering Bucks County from New Jersey, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A sign is posted in New Hope, Pa., upon entering Bucks County from New Jersey, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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New financial relief is available for some Bucks County renters.

The Bucks Emergency Rental Assistance program (BERA) was created to provide financial relief for renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county announced this week two updates to the program:

  • Renters who have already received BERA can apply again. If renters have used all of their funds, they may be eligible to receive more assistance for any utility bills or rent that they still owe. Tenants must prove they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 and have received less than 15 months of assistance through BERA. The application deadline is September 30.
  • New applicants to the BERA program can receive three total months of financial assistance, for rent and utilities owed, including one month of assistance for future rent. According to the county, this assistance is “one-time only, and additional funds will not be made available.”
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Jeff Fields, director of Bucks County’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said the county has the opportunity to provide more funding for previous applicants’ outstanding debt, because it has enough federal funds available through Pennsylvania’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

“We have just about used all of [the funds],” Fields said. “But we do have enough that we want to try to make it available to anyone who has already applied … We want to get those applications in and pay as much of it as we can.”

Fields said the county’s decision to offer three total months of rent assistance for new applicants — compared to the original 15 — is based on data on the needs of previous BERA applicants.

He says the data shows that the vast majority of applicants have needed only one or two months of assistance for bills past due. And one month of prospective rent is enough time for residents to “get back on their feet,” he said.

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“This policy, we think, will prevent the most evictions and serve the most households over the longest period of time,” Fields said.

He said the program’s intent is to help people in their crisis moment and focus on avoiding evictions. “If we pay too much prospective again, we’re then ultimately going to be helping less people.”

The county expects the BERA program to last through 2022 and into 2023.

As of March, according to Lauren Harbison, senior administrative officer for the Bucks County Justice Center, eviction filings in Bucks County were registering below pre-pandemic statistics.

District courts received a total of 313 new filings in January and 254 new filings in February, she told WHYY. In comparison, the monthly average for new filings in 2019 was 468 per month.

Affordable housing remains a priority for Bucks County residents — it was the greatest need identified in a 2021 community survey. The results were released in March by the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC), the county’s leading anti-poverty agency.

As of March, Bucks County housing agencies and advocates said they had seen a rise in community members on the brink of displacement or already unhoused, especially since the start of the pandemic.

Bucks County Commissioners recently released “performance standards” for mixed-used development across the county, intended to encourage municipalities to “explore, develop, and pass ordinances permitting mixed-use development and the creation of additional, attainable housing.”

Brit Montoro is an organizer with Bucks Tenant Solidarity, a grassroots organization that helps tenants find rent assistance, legal advice, and offers support in the search for affordable housing.

Montoro said they’re glad BERA is still active.

“It would be amazing if a program like that were allowed to continue even into the following years,” Montoro said. ”Considering the cost of living is not backing down … and then at the same time, the socioeconomic conditions are not improving related to people’s needs in terms of housing … this is a lifeline.”

Montoro still has some concerns about the program, including the fact that landlords have the power to not accept BERA funds for tenants.

Montoro also said some past applicants had problems receiving their assistance.

“There are people who have been stuck waiting for the BERA that were on the list, either to get approved for the rental assistance or we’re still waiting [to be processed.] And then the timeline … Essentially when their landlord wanted them out, they were out.”

Status of emergency rental assistance across the Philadelphia Suburbs

Montgomery County’s emergency rental assistance program, the Your Way Home Emergency Rent & Utility Coalition (ERUC), is continuing into the foreseeable future.

According to the county, as of July 2022, ERUC has provided over $65 million in assistance to 6,161 households.

The Delaware County Emergency Rental Assistance program (DELCO ERA) is closing on Sept. 10 at 4 p.m., because it is about to meet “100% expenditure” of its allocation of state funds.

According to the county, the program has processed 11,196 grants, with an average amount of assistance of $6,000 for over 9 months of rent and/or utility assistance.

In Chester County, the emergency rent and utility program is likely to continue into 2023, according to a county spokesperson. Eligible residents can receive up to 15 months of ERAP assistance.

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