Even before the onset of COVID-19, Pennsylvania had a severe shortage of affordable rental homes. This shortage was especially dire for households with very and extremely low-incomes and people across Pennsylvania were already being displaced. RHLS has fought to create and preserve housing that is stable, affordable, and healthy for all Pennsylvanians for over forty-five years, but the health, economic, and social circumstances created by COVID-19 have made more Pennsylvanians than ever vulnerable to losing their homes and being displaced from their communities.
When the devastating rates of unemployment in Pennsylvania became evident, RHLS responded immediately by advocating for the eviction moratorium that prevented thousands of Pennsylvania renters from losing their homes for the last six months. RHLS staff advocated on state and local levels for resources to fund relief programs for both renters and homeowners, as well as for funding for legal aid programs to represent the many who will need assistance.
Working with national partners, we helped to create a national eviction moratorium mapping tool that allowed key stakeholders to determine the different protections that each state had or did not have for its residents. This eviction mapping tool was cited in both the New York Times and on Time.com, as well as used by Matthew Desmond’s EvictionLab’s Housing Policy Scorecard, helping to influence a national conversation about a pending eviction crisis.
We created infographics explaining the rights of renters and homeowners, helping them to understand whether they could remain in their homes if they were unable to pay their rent or mortgage. Our attorneys participated in virtual town halls with community organizations to answer questions, our infographics were printed and distributed to seniors receiving emergency food supply bags, and we boosted the signals of our fellow Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network programs that provide information and representation to those in need.
Our housing development attorneys helped our nonprofit clients navigate unprecedented challenges as they continued to develop and operate affordable housing for some of the most vulnerable. Our clients sought the expertise of RHLS attorneys to navigate ways to keep their communities safe. Clients in the process of planning or constructing affordable multi-family housing faced unprecedented extra costs, delays, and legal issues. We remained committed to bringing developments to the finish line, so that affordable housing in the “pipeline” could defray, in small part, what we expect to be an unprecedented need for more affordable housing.
As the events of late spring and early summer unfolded, RHLS faced a difficult but necessary realization—our current positions, policies, and work did not adequately address the impacts of racial inequity in affordable housing and community development. Responding to a Call to Action from Patrick Cicero, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, RHLS has made a renewed and reenergized commitment to honestly examine racial inequity in all aspects of our work, acknowledging that without proactive and critical analysis, the work we do is vulnerable to perpetuating racial inequities. We know that without accountability, the relief that has come may perpetuate cycles of racial inequity that have allowed this crisis to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.
What is evident now is that the work we must do to address the long-term fallout of COVID-19 is just beginning. The eviction moratorium in Pennsylvania has expired, and the CDC’s recent national moratorium could leave many still vulnerable to losing their homes. While some relief measures have come, we know they are inadequate to the issues Pennsylvanians are now facing.
Knowing that many challenges still lay ahead, RHLS continues to focus on systems work that keeps people in their homes, that makes their homes healthier, and that allows our clients to serve some of the most vulnerable. We will work with many of the clients and policy partners that we have stood alongside for decades while also building new relationships and collaborating in new ways. Perhaps most critically, we have committed to moving forward intentionally with the evidence that the housing-related impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Pennsylvanians, and that solutions that do not address this head-on may only perpetuate the problem.
While much remains uncertain, we hope not for a return to “business as usual,” but to have an opportunity to bring proactive and innovative solutions to problems that have lingered for decades. We look forward to sharing our progress.