It’s been a slow start for the second round in the federal rental assistance program in Lebanon County since it launched in mid-March.

Samuel Ortiz is an administrator for Community Action Partnership (CAP), the agency in charge of administering the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) for the county. ERAP provides federal funding to landlords whose renters can’t pay their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ortiz said several factors contributed to the sluggish start.

“On top of all of the stimulus payments and the additional help they’ve been getting, a lot of people are whole with their landlords,” Ortiz said. “Typically, people prioritize rent when it comes to paying their needs. So we think that is the biggest factor.”

Despite the snail-like pace at the onset, there are indications that ERAP will pick up steam in Lebanon County in the months ahead, he added.

One factor is that phase 1 of the program, which was originally slated to end last December, has been pushed back to September 2022. Furthermore, the American Rescue Plan, which passed Congress in March, extends the program end date to September 2025 as part of the second round of ERAP funding, according to Ortiz.

“While it may not have been embraced as quickly as we imagined, I think that over time that we will start to see those numbers creep up — especially as the eviction moratorium ends, which was extended to the end of July,” said Ortiz. “We did see more applications in June and that is a trend that we think is going to continue.”

Of the $9.35 million allocated to Lebanon County for ERAP, $457,419 has been disbursed to landlords for rental payments, both in arrears and for future payments between March and the end of June. An additional $195,686 has been distributed for utility bills in arrears as well as for future costs.

CAP has been paid over $23,000 through June in administrative fees associated with running the program.

To demonstrate how the program has gained momentum in June, about $200,000 in rent and $75,000 in utilities was paid in that month alone, added Ortiz.

So far, the program has been embraced more by renters than landlords, according to Ortiz. Tenants applying for relief account for 349 of the 358 applications received at CAP.

“I don’t know why we haven’t had more landlords apply for the program,” said Ortiz. “We’ve tried to conduct a landlord focus group but we didn’t get much of a response. We are still trying to get more feedback from landlords.”

A lack of interest, especially from landlords, is not from a lack of concerted efforts to conduct a widespread marketing and public relations campaign across Lebanon County to inform residents that the program is available to them, Ortiz said.

He said CAP has worked with the local marketing firm Fresh Creative to launch a marketing campaign that has a major focus on the city of Lebanon.

Bilingual signage was placed on two sides of Route 422 near Walmart, and Ortiz added that CAP had reached (as of the end of May) 52 churches and businesses, most of which are Spanish speaking.

Additionally, door hangers were left on approximately 6,600 rental units across Lebanon County. Ads and PSAs have also been placed digitally online via social media, in print publications and electronically through radio spots and videos.

Through the end of May, the targeting of Lebanon would appear to be a wise move. The city accounts for 51 percent of the rental and utility assistance, while 10 percent has been disbursed to Palmyra and another 3 percent to the Jonestown area, according to Ortiz.

“We did our best to get as much word out,” he said. “I think Fresh Creative did a great job with trying to cover as many avenues of marketing as they could, but it’s just a matter of word of mouth.”

Lebanon County is not the only county in Pennsylvania to experience a plodding pace out of the gate, according to Ortiz and Tom Stark, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of County Association Administrators.

Stark said it takes time to roll out a program of this magnitude.

“Under normal circumstances we’re talking about a program that would normally take a year to develop and then implement,” said Stark. “But the fact of the matter is we only had two months to launch it after Act 1 passed.”

Other challenges have also complicated the process, added Stark.

“The application process is a bit more complicated,” he said. “Applications in most counties were online via COMPASS. Also, getting the right documentation from tenants who sometimes are unresponsive or who provided the wrong documentation delayed the start. And then you also have to get the word out to landlords and tenants.”

Stark said he’s interested in seeing the June report from other counties because, while many still had to report their numbers, conversations with other county officials indicate a rise in the number of applications in those areas as well.

Stark added that, much like Lebanon County, other counties expect to see higher participation in ERAP in the coming months as renters use up their stimulus payments and seek other ways to pay their landlords to avoid eviction.

In a separate development related to ERAP, both Stark and Ortiz said program administrators are waiting for federal as well as state guidance on some aspects of the program moving forward, which should be issued by the end of July.

A primary issue centers around a guideline that requires 65 percent of a county’s ERAP funding to be allocated or earmarked for disbursement to landlords by the end of this month — otherwise funding is set to to be redistributed to other areas of rental assistance needed within the commonwealth.

Since there was a slow start in all of the state except for Philadelphia County, officials are waiting to hear if that deadline will be changed to a future date.

If so, it is believed counties would maintain the funding they’ve already been allocated. As of press time, no decision had been announced to local ERAP officials about a deadline extension.

To learn more about the ERAP program, visit its Lebanon County website or call (717) 273-9328.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...