Pandemic, inflation adding burden for renters in Valley

Jul. 10—It took Jennifer Herrara five months from the time she arrived in Milton to settle at her current residence where she has been for the last 16 months.

Herrara, 45, moved to Milton from Chicago, Illinois, at the end of 2021 with no personal housing options in the area. Her rent in Illinois increased by $150 for a two-bedroom apartment in 2020 by the start of the pandemic.

"I had no options. I was one hundred percent a stranger in Milton," said Herrera.

Becoming acquainted with locals at Speedy's Place in Milton, Herrara developed relationships translating to temporary housing while locating a place of her own.

"I went from a transient to a moderate renter to a home renter," said Herrara. "Charity can only be extended so far."

Her rent is $650 a month plus electric, gas, water, and garbage. On average, she said, she pays approximately $2,000 monthly to maintain a minimal household.

Cost of living has many people digging deep in their pockets to pay rent, purchase groceries, gas and medications as they journey to the next paycheck.

According to American Consumer Survey data analysis by World Population Review, the average household in the U.S. dedicates 33.1% of its budget to housing costs and the average American is paying $998 per month. Average rent is highest in Hawaii ($1,617) and lowest in North Dakota ($826), according to the review. Pennsylvania is 25th at $938.

There are no rent control laws in Pennsylvania, according to multiple Tribune News Service reports. Rental property owners set whatever price they think is fair and renters agree to that price through a written or oral lease agreement.

The organizations and programs available to aid residents looking to rent a home have become even more crucial during the pandemic and as inflation has climbed.

Rental property owners

Some rental property owners in the Valley have refused to increase rent while others have raised rates to meet increasing utility costs and due to a gap between supply and demand.

Area real estate broker Art Bowen said on his part he has chosen to not increase the cost of rent on his rental properties. He hinted that was a personal decision.

"I haven't raised my rent except three years ago," said Bowen.

Price of rent generally is higher outside the region, Bowen said, and with costs associated with moving, renters are hesitant to leave. Bowen agreed a deficit on rental properties exists.

"So it doesn't really pay to move," Bowen said.

Bowen said it takes landlords 45 days to three months to receive back rent. He said the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also assists longer-term tenants.

Some of Bowen's tenants are still receiving pandemic rental assistance from Community Action Agency (CAA) in Selinsgrove, and Central Susquehanna Opportunities (CSO) in Shamokin. CAA services Union and Snyder counties. CSO, also a community action agency, provides similar programs for residents in Montour and Northumberland counties.

"They're a great resource," said Bowen.

Bowen's tenants are not alone.

Stacie Smith, CSO administrator for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), said 1,800 homes in Northumberland and Mounter counties have received rental assistance to date.

Help for renters

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed into law Dec. 27, 2020, included funding to establish emergency rental assistance programs, like ERAP.

Pennsylvania received approximately $569 million to administer assistance to renters, landlords, and utility providers affected by the pandemic and the widespread economic insecurities that followed.

On Feb. 5, 2021, Gov. Tom Wolf signed S.B. 109 into law designating the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) the agency to oversee administration of ERAP in the 49 counties that did not receive direct allocations.

ERAP income limits vary by county. The household's annual income must be equal to or less than 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) for their county.

CAA received a combined $9.8 million in direct emergency rental and utility assistance just for Union and Snyder counties, according to Executive Director Sue Auman.

"Our organization has been the designated funding source for all the programs," Auman said. "We have been around for forty years. We have quite a few programs that we manage."

Auman said CAA has worked with those affected by the pandemic struggling to pay bills and those about to be evicted. Their services include utilities and internet bills. Participants must meet certain income requirements.

Many different scenarios exist where people are put in positions to need and use CAA.

"What has been true is there is a dramatic increase of people who are struggling," said Auman.

She said there is an uptick of homelessness in the region.

CAA works with tenants and landlords to process paperwork and navigate participants through the bureaucracy.

"We don't do the work for people, we are by their side," she said. "Sometimes people need a little extra help."

Priority for rental assistance is given to households with income at or below 50% of the area median; or one or more individuals within a household are unemployed as of the date of application for assistance and have not been employed for the 90-day period preceding such date.

Auman said there is a housing team handling more intensive cases of potential homelessness.

'You do what you can'

Despite being in a homeless situation upon arrival in the Valley, Herrara still has not opted to receive rental assistance, calling herself "old school." Instead, she saved money and secured a job when she came to Milton taking various odd jobs to supplement that income.

Herrara said she believes public safety nets should be temporary but do not go far enough.

"It's not there to support you," Herrara said. "But there's not enough public programs so disparities are removed."

Herrara works two jobs and still struggles. She anticipates taking a third job to stay financially stable.

"You do what you can to maintain and hope it works out. If I have ten dollars, I put five in the bank," she said.

Laundromat visits are up an additional $15 in the last two months, she said, and Herrara routinely makes choices between food and putting gas in her car.

Herrara said she uses Medicaid and is grateful for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as "ObamaCare." Interest rates in housing and cost of living have her concerned.

"As a middle-aged, single, divorced, white woman without a blue-collar trade, it is difficult to secure your rent," Herrara said. "Your aspirations are almost contingent upon working more than one job."

Having two parents at the table makes a financial difference, she said. Herrera has a son who is 29 and also chose to call Milton home.

Herrera graduated from Herzing University in Wisconsin with an associate's degree in medical administration.

Locally Herrera would not make ends meet with her given degree, she said. She said she could move back to Chicago to earn greater income but chooses to remain in Milton.

"There's still some American hope here," she said.

Comparing Milton to Chicago, Herrera said in Milton she can walk safely down the street.

"I can be cautious but not terrified. That alone is wonderful and people take that for granted here," Herrara said.

'I've been in the hole for along time'

Aqeel Fleming, of Sunbury, is a single father who has custody of his two children and does not receive child support.

"I've been in the hole for a long time because I do it on my own," Fleming said.

During the pandemic, his whole family came down with COVID — his son has a genetic disorder — and money soon ran out.

"They (CSO) did a lot more than just pay some bills. They helped me out with my life. I've got no family," said Fleming.

He said he values the friendships he made working with CSO and they treated him like family.

"It was nice to feel somebody had my back," Fleming said. "They gave me that upper hand. People really need to know about it."

Fleming said his bills are caught up and he has built back his credit. He said that was because of ERAP.

The application process was easy and Fleming said he had no negative experiences.

"It was not hard at all because of how they made me feel. They went the extra mile for me," said Fleming. "They treated me like family. It was really smooth how they did it."

ERAP applications

Applying for ERAP requires different types of paperwork including utility bills and proof of income.

"Compiling the information can be difficult. It can take months," Union County Commissioner Stacy Richards said.

Richards said she helped an elderly constituent navigate through ERAP. The constituent's income is associated with social security with an added dependent on a fixed income.

Richards said many homes in Union County experience similar situations as cost of rent increases and income decreases. A home situation can spiral out of control that might result in a need for assistance, she said.

The constituent waited six weeks for their application to be approved while staff was short-handed.

"It was an anomaly. Now they don't have that problem. Now they can process within a couple weeks," said Richards. "The reason this program is valuable is because renters are being hit particularly hard and that is why renters were identified for this program."

She said many in Union County have benefited from ERAP.

"Its kept people in their homes," she said. Richards said many leases charge extra for each day late on rent.

Some Union County residents live in situations where cost of living exceeded income. ERAP provides a cushion allowing renters a chance to catch up, she said.

Richards said the ever-increasing cost of rent and utility bills has renters captive to landlords and typically paying higher costs than homeowners. She said there is a nationwide shortage on affordable housing and particularly for rentals.

Richards said CAA and CSO provide invaluable services and identify other programs participants likely are eligible for, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Those programs allow renters an opportunity to save money, according to Richards.

Richards feels a stigma still exists for those who seek public assistance.

"Not only does the stigma exist but there's pride in people used to taking care of themselves who could handle their bills, and suddenly can't," she said. "They don't have the network of connections on where to turn."

Richards said many residents may be surprised they meet income requirements to participate in ERAP and hopes more will take part before the program expires in December 2025.

Rent increases

By the time it expires in more than three years, many residents are likely to have experienced a rent increase.

"It all hinges on supply and demand," Bowen said. "There is greed by some people and compassion by others."

Kelly Straub of the Bowen Agency said some landlords are driving up rent in the region.

"Some of it (is because) there's not much supply but a lot of demand," said Straub.

Straub noted utility costs for landlords have increased along with everything else due to inflation.

"So they have to pass that cost on to their tenants," Straub said. "It's not everyone."

She said some landlords do minimal increases.

"Not all landlords are giving increases," she said. "HUD is still out there, but you can only rent houses they approve."

The list for HUD is long, according to Straub. She gave a nod of approval to the work CAA does.

"You have to meet certain qualifications, but they will help with that," said Straub.

Straub said people are not moving very often these days.

"I think everyone is afraid to move because they're afraid of what they're going to pay to move," said Straub. "You start this vicious cycle all over again"

Straub said the tenants she manages mostly did not receive any sort of rental assistance.

"Unless they got the stimulus, which I wouldn't know if they did or not," Straub said.

More tenants have needed help paying rent in 2022, Straub said, but she could not highlight one specific reason why.

Straub said several different factors are at play, including the rising cost of rent, cars child care and utilities, the public finds it difficult to financially maintain their daily lives.

"I don't know if it's because they're not working or not making enough as everything increases," she said.