PULP Helps Protect CAP Consumers

On behalf of Pennsylvania Utility Law Project client, CAUSE-PA, PULP won a contested decision at the Public Utility Commission (PUC) in which the Commission recognized for the first time that protections were needed for low-income customers enrolled in PPL Electric Utilities’ customer assistance program (CAP), which provides reduced utility bills. PULP staff successfully advocated for protections that ensure that bills remain affordable for economically vulnerable customers and that the low-income programs remain viable.

PULP recognized that these protections were necessary because low-income CAP customers were being subjected to millions of dollars per year in unnecessary costs by unregulated electric generation suppliers. The PUC approved a proposal that would both provide necessary protections and allow low-income customers to save additional money. CAUSE-PA, as well as the State’s Office of Consumer Advocate, and the PUC’s own Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement advocated for the proposal.

While the matter is currently being reconsidered as a result of a request by the Retail Energy Supply Association, PULP staff are optimistic that the protections will remain. PULP’s Director, Patrick Cicero remarked,

“I am hopeful that the PUC will uphold its decision that PPL’s CAP customers need additional protection from unscrupulous contracts that charge excessive rates. Low-income households already experience energy poverty at staggering rates, and this crisis of unaffordability is unnecessarily exacerbated if economically fragile households are served by competitive energy suppliers at rates higher than those charged by the utility company. The protections approved by the PUC in its recent decision are appropriate steps in the right direction.”

PULP is currently working on this issue on behalf of CAUSE-PA with each of the major electric companies throughout the state. Read more about the protections in this article on the Morning Call.

Regional Housing Legal Services and the PA Utility Law Project are celebrating 20 years of working together to help Pennsylvanians. 

Helping Homeowners Save Their Homes: RHLS Advocates for Changes to PA’s Act 91/6 Notice

Each year, lenders send thousands of “Act 91 Notices” to Pennsylvania homeowners to inform them that they are in default on their mortgages, they face foreclosure, and they can take steps to save their homes.

The Act 91 Notice is required by Pennsylvania law and is established by a policy issued by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). The existing notice was universally criticized as being incomprehensible, legalistic and confusing, thereby creating an unnecessary barrier for homeowners to understand what actions they should take and what rights they have to save their homes.

Regional Housing Legal Services Executive Director, Mark Schwartz, proposed that revisions to the notice were necessary after multiple years of only a small percentage of Act 91 notice recipients applying to the Homeowner’s Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP). Consulting a Housing counselor defers the filing of foreclosures in Court, connects the homeowner with a certified housing counselor, and ultimately, may help homeowners modify their mortgages or get HEMAP loans in order to avoid foreclosure.

Mark Schwartz and Managing Attorney, Judy Berkman, worked with stakeholders across the Commonwealth to propose changes that would have the buy-in of banking companies, community-based organizations, legal service providers, and housing advocates. With the assistance of knowledgeable Community Legal Services attorneys and other housing advocates, RHLS was able to propose significant changes to the Act 91 Notice.

Key changes to the Notice include the following:

• A simpler plain language one page notice on the homeowners’ rights, including meeting with a free housing counselor and applying for HEMAP. (There is a translation in Spanish on the reverse, and translations are available on the PHFA website in Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Cambodian/Khmer.)
• A clear one page notice on what the homeowner can do to cure the default and bring it current.
• Changes to the format of the notice, such as font and spacing, to draw attention to key portions including the importance of contacting a housing counseling agency.

RHLS and the housing advocates also proposed several changes to the PHFA Policy Statement regarding HEMAP to make sure that no new obstacles were inadvertently imposed on homeowners applying for HEMAP loans.

RHLS believes the changes to the Act 91 Notice will ultimately result in more homeowners seeking guidance from housing counselors, successfully applying for HEMAP, and saving their homes from foreclosure.

Lenders in Pennsylvania will be required to use the new Act 91 Notice on or before September 1, 2016. For further information, including the PHFA letter to Members of HEMAP Constituent Groups.

RHLS would like to express its sincere thanks to the dedicated attorneys at Community Legal Services and other Pennsylvania housing advocates and other stakeholders, as well as the staff of PHFA and the PA Department of Banking, for their hard work and collaboration on a very difficult task.

Read more about this work in The Pennsylvania Record. 

Have you received an Act 91 Notice? Learn about next steps.

RHLS Clients Advocate for Solutions to Pittsburgh’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Pittsburgh’s Affordable Housing Task Force appeared before the Pittsburgh City Council on April 28th to present recommendations that address the City’s growing affordable housing crisis. RHLS Staff Attorney, Bob Damewood, provided legal assistance to long-time clients Pittsburgh United and the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania in crafting some of the key recommendations discussed at the meeting.

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania estimates that Pittsburgh is currently lacking 21,000 units of affordable housing for individuals and families with low incomes. The Affordable Housing Task Force seeks to address these needs by analyzing and conducting ongoing reviews of housing needs assessments, studying the implications of policies and programs on the housing stock, and promoting community engagement to receive input and feedback.

During the meeting conducted on the 28th, the task force provided the following preliminary recommendations:

  • Establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the City of Pittsburgh to repair the existing housing stock, increase stabilization, support permanent affordability, provide opportunities for affordable homeownership, and address vacant housing and buildings.
  • Increase and expand usage of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to support the acquisition and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing as well as financing development for mixed-income housing.
  • Create incentives for inclusionary housing in order to generate additional affordable units.
  • Preserve existing deed-restricted housing, particularly including the 2,000 affordable housing units are set to expire as income-restricted by the year 2020.
  • Preserve existing naturally occurring affordable housing through tax relief for long-time owner occupants and protections for tenants who are at risk of displacement.

Read the full Affordable Housing Task Force Post-Agenda Report.

Check out Pittsburgh’s Action News 4’s report on the Affordable Housing Tasks Force’s meeting with City Council here.

Preserving Housing in Reading: More Than Just the Nuts and Bolts

Affordable housing facilities face many challenges. Preserving and maintaining the physical structure of affordable multifamily housing facilities is a substantial challenge, financial stability is also vital to survival.

B’nai B’rith House of  Reading, Pennsylvania provides housing to a significant number of Berks County seniors. With 171 units located in the heart of downtown Reading, B’nai B’rith provides seniors with access to services and a ready made community that can help keep them independent and preserve their quality of life.

Built in 1976-1977,  the B’nai B’rith House was originally developed using construction bond financing from the Pennsylvania housing Finance Agency (PHFA), and operating support  from the  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD).   Over time, operating expenses for the B’nai B’rith House outpaced revenue with the problem greatly exacerbated by the high interest rate (almost  9%) on the existing debt service. To make ends meet the B’nai B’rith House was forced to use  reserves set aside for long term capital needs.

With the representation of RHLS attorney Dina Schlossberg, Deputy Director/Senior Attorney for Multi-Family Housing, B’nai B’rith was able to negotiate a new loan facility from PHFA that significantly reduced the monthly debt service and that enabled B’nai B’rith House to replenish reserves to support the long-term stability of the property.

While Dina provided legal counsel, she could not help but share that she was incredibly impressed with the tenacious advocacy of B’nai B’rith leadership and its property manager Lou Danzico, as well as with the generous commitment of PHFA to  assist in the preservation of this very special property to so many seniors.

As a result of this refinancing, B’nai B’rith, which features efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments, will be available to serve low-income seniors for at least the next forty years.

Request services for your affordable housing development.