Applications for affordable housing available for key funding program

A $100 million program meant to construct and rehabilitate affordable housing units is now accepting applications. 

Senate Democratic Appropriations Chairman Vincent Hughes (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) announced Tuesday that the Housing Options Grant Program-Multi-family (HOP-MF) Program is now accepting applications. 

Established as part of the 2022-23 Pennsylvania State Budget, the $100 million program is funded by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and will be used to construct and rehabilitate affordable housing units. The HOP-MF Program is operated by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). 

The applications follow the historic 22-23 state budget investment in affordable and workforce housing. 

“My Democratic colleagues and I were able to work across party lines to deliver major investments in housing in the last budget,” Hughes said in a statement. “We are thankful for the leadership from our former governor, Tom Wolf, President Biden, and our leaders in Congress who helped make this possible.” 

Hughes added that investing in affordable housing is a crucial way to restore and rebuild Pennsylvania’s neighborhoods and brighten the future of the state’s communities. 

“All families deserve a safe and healthy place to call home,” said Hughes. “Eligible parties should apply now!” 

The HOP-MF program is made up of three subprograms – the Emergency Grant Initiative, Preservation Initiative, and New Construction Initiative. 

The Emergency Grant Initiative is designed to provide funding for emergency repairs to existing deed-restricted affordable housing throughout the state so existing tenants are not displaced. 

The aim of the Preservation Initiative is to provide funding to rehabilitate properties on a non-emergency basis with the goal of creating/extending the affordability period and making certain sufficient repairs to the property to ensure the stability of the building through the affordability period. 

The New Construction Initiative/Construction Conversion Initiative is designed to provide financing for the construction of affordable rental properties. 

HOP-MF applications are open through 4 p.m. EST on May 23. The application is available online at Housing Options Grant Program-Multi-family Application – HOPMF (hopmfphfa.org). 

Grants will be awarded no later than Dec. 31, 2024, and the entire funding must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

Wolf announces plan to expand broadband in Pa.

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority has released the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Statewide Broadband Plan, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday. 

Both the immediate and long-term needs of Pennsylvanians are addressed in the State Broadband Plan. 

Wolf stated that broadband is as essential in today’s world as electricity and water but noted that there exists in Pennsylvania a digital divide. “This plan will ensure consistent, affordable, quality statewide broadband to keep children learning, businesses growing, and opportunities abounding for all Pennsylvanians.” 

In December 2021 Wolf signed legislation to create the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. Created through bipartisan partnership, the authority serves as a one-stop shop for all things broadband in Pennsylvania and manages more than $100 million in federal funds while working to close the state’s digital divide. 

The focus of the authority’s plan to expand broadband across the state is on improving broadband service infrastructure and availability, device and technology access, and digital literacy and technical support. As there are up to 800,000 unserved Pennsylvanians, the plan includes steps to achieve universal broadband access. 

Meeting this goal means committing to the following: 

  • Maintaining current and accurate data on unserved and underserved populations 
  • Reducing obstacles to broadband deployment 
  • Supporting and maintaining a skilled workforce 
  • Ensuring devices are made available and affordable 
  • Ensuring multiple affordable service options are available 
  • Ensuring affordable options are sustainable 
  • Providing training so that every person can meet foundational digital literacy skills 
  • Developing a technical support network. 

Brandon Carson, the authority’s executive director, said in a statement that if Pennsylvania is to remain competitive, equal access to the internet, regardless of income or location, must be provided. “Broadband access affects every area of our lives – from work, to education, to health, and safety. Closing the digital divide helps enhance our communities and fosters economic growth and innovation for all Pennsylvanians.” 

In 2018, the Wolf Administration launched a $35 million Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program to expand broadband in rural areas. 

In 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development launched the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program to further support the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved areas with $10 million in funding. 

Wolf administration launches $350 million Pa. Homeowner assistance fund 

Pennsylvania homeowners that are at or below 150% of their region’s median income will soon be able to apply for financial assistance through the new Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund (PAHAF). 

The Wolf administration announced this week that the new fund, administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), has been approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

The fund consists of $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds through the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Homeowner Assistance Fund and will be given to Pennsylvania homeowners grappling with unforeseen financial hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As we continue to advance our COVID-19 recovery efforts, we must address the rising number of homeowners facing possible loss of their homes and foreclosure – this program will do just that,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “The Homeowner Assistance Fund will prioritize individuals and families with the greatest need, as well as those who are socially disadvantaged. I am grateful that the U.S. Treasury has approved Pennsylvania’s plan, and we can start the new year by distributing this critical funding to homeowners.”   

PAHAF will use the funds to provide eligible Pennsylvania homeowners with much-needed assistance to prevent and/or ease mortgage delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures, displacement and utility disconnection. 

Our mission is to help Pennsylvanians achieve housing stability despite the many hardships faced during these uncertain times,” said Robin Wiessmann, executive director and CEO of the PHFA. “PAHAF will provide critical support to eligible Pennsylvania homeowners, allowing families to recover and helping communities overcome the devastating financial and economic impacts of the pandemic.“ 

Applications for the fund open on Feb. 1. Applicants that qualify for the assistance must be a Pennsylvania homeowner that saw a reduction of income or increase in living expenses due to the pandemic after January 21, 2020. 

Gov. Tom Wolf lifting COVID-19 restrictions starting Memorial Day

Pennsylvania will lift all COVID-19 restrictions except the order to wear a mask in public on Memorial Day, the Wolf administration announced.

The decision to no longer restrict capacity on restaurants, bars or indoor and outdoor gatherings on May 31 was made in partnership with the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force.

Pennsylvanians will continue to be required to wear masks until 70% of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the commonwealth. Fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear masks in certain situations, however, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  More details on masking for those already vaccinated can be found here.

“As more Pennsylvania adults get vaccinated and guidance from the CDC evolves, we can continue to move forward with our reopening efforts,” said Alison Beam, acting secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health in a statement. “I encourage Pennsylvanians to take the critical steps needed to put this pandemic behind us by getting vaccinated, follow through with both doses if you receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and continue to take steps like masking, frequent hand washing and sanitizing and social distancing.”

The mitigation updates will not prevent municipalities and school districts from ​continuing and implementing stricter mitigation efforts.

For Pennsylvania restaurants and hotels, the news is a relief, according to John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“The PRLA welcomes Governor Wolf’s announcement to loosen mitigation standards as vaccination rates continue to rise and positive cases decline,” Longstreet said. “As a major economic driver throughout the Commonwealth, the hospitality industry needs further support to regain a sense of normalcy to attract its workforce, retain a consistent customer base and meet ever-changing mitigation standards.”

All Pennsylvanians ages 16 and older are eligible to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine. The provider map is available on the Department of Health’s website. Pennsylvanians with questions about the vaccination process can call the Department of Health hotline at 1-877-724-3258.

Limits on number of people that can congregate in-person not enforceable — for now

A federal judge this week denied Gov. Tom Wolf’s motion to uphold limitations on in-person gatherings while administration officials work to appeal a Sept. 14 ruling that said some of the governor’s COVID-19 mitigation orders were unconstitutional.

Judge William S. Stickman, district court judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania, rejected Wolf’s request to stay the court’s ruling that business closure mandates, stay-at-home requirements and limitations on in-person gatherings violated the constitutional rights on citizens.

In his memorandum filed on Tuesday, Stickman reaffirmed his contention that Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine violated citizens’ First Amendment’s right of assembly and the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment with statewide orders intended to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Tuesday’s ruling means 25-person caps on indoor gatherings and 250-person caps on outdoor gatherings are not enforceable while Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine appeal the court’s decision. It was the latest development in the ongoing court battle between four western counties and businesses who sued Wolf and Levine in May over their alleged violations of civil liberties with COVID-19 containment orders.

“The administration is disappointed with the decision and has filed an appeal,” said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger in an emailed statement. Kensinger said the Court’s decision is “especially worrying” as Pennsylvania could face a challenging resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter.

Since the commonwealth transitioned out of March’s business closure and stay-at-home orders, the only remaining restrictions impacted by last week’s ruling were on indoor and outdoor gatherings, which have been limited to 25 and 250, respectively.

“This court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March, which were later suspended, as well as the 25-person indoor and 250-person outdoor gathering limitations,” Kensinger said, adding that current restrictions on business occupancy requirements remain in place.

In Wolf’s motion to stay the order, he argued the ruling makes it difficult for state officials to manage the pandemic effectively and could result in the deaths of Pennsylvanians.

Stickman, appointed by President Donald Trump in May of 2019, remained unconvinced. Why should hundreds of people be allowed to gather indoors to shop, as permitted by percentage-based occupancy requirements, Stickman queried, but no more than 25 be allowed to attend an indoor lecture?

Stickman argued that the administration’s actions demonstrate that “they do not believe gatherings exceeding their numeric caps will necessarily cause such harm.” Stickman cited Wolf’s decision to appear at a protest in June in apparent violation of his own limit on outdoor events.

Stickman also pointed to a confidentiality agreement between the state Department of Health and the organizers of a large auto flea market in Carlisle that allowed the event to take place in April.

The confidentiality agreement, which was made part of the case record following FOIA requests that disclosed it to the public, revealed the Health Department agreed to allow the event to proceed with an indoor capacity of “the lesser of 250 individuals or 50% of the maximum building capacity,” and an outdoor capacity limit of no more than 20,000 — well above the 25 and 250 caps.

The administration’s treatment of the car show and large public protests across the commonwealth, Stickman said, undermine its argument that “imminent and irreparable harm” will occur absent their ability to impose numeric occupancy caps.

Wolf said he’s confident the Sept. 14 ruling will be successfully appealed since two other federal judges upheld the legality of the administration’s actions in cases earlier this year.

“While the federal government dithered, Pennsylvania took action,” Wolf said in response to the Court’s Sept. 14 decision. “Our hospitals were never overwhelmed and research tells us thousands of lives were saved.”

Wolf extends suspension of evictions and foreclosures

Gov. Tom Wolf extended the state’s suspension of evictions and foreclosures until Aug. 31. The executive order issued May 7 was set to expire Friday.

The new order does not apply to lenders and property owners receiving funds through any program by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) or through one of several federal foreclosure moratorium programs.

“I am taking this action to help families know they will have a roof over their heads and a place to live while all of us fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf said. “It takes one more burden off of people who are struggling and ensures that families can remain in their homes so they can protect their health and wellbeing.”

Wolf signed legislation in May that would provide $150 million for rental assistance and $25 million for mortgage assistance through PHFA with CARES Act Funds.

PHFA began accepting applications for the assistance on Monday but has yet to award any money.

Lebanon County to move to green phase July 3

Lebanon County will be the last county in the state to transition to the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan on July 3.

The midstate county is the only one still in the yellow after 12 counties moved to the green phase today including Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Susquehanna counties.

“We will soon have all of our counties in green; a milestone worth a cautious celebration of the hard work and collaborative spirit of Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said. “But we must remember that the restrictions that remain in the green phase will help us continue to enjoy the freedoms this phase allows for.”

Lebanon wasn’t part of this week’s green phase transitions because its COVID-19 cases were not yet decreasing at a steady rate and the county still had too high of a percentage of tests come back positive, said Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Department of Health.

Wardle said that the county had a 15% decrease in the number of new cases from June 12 to June 26. The county also had only 6.6% of its COVID-19 tests come back positive, compared to 10.9% the week before.

As of July 3, Lebanon County businesses who could be open in the yellow phase at 50% capacity can expand to 75% capacity. Child care services may reopen, and prisons and hospitals may allow vistors.

Gatherings of more than 250 remain prohibited, masks are required in businesses and restaurants, bars, personal care services, indoor recreation, and all entertainment must remain at 50% capacity.

CDC commends Pa.’s reduction of COVID-19 positive cases

Pennsylvania is one of three states of the country that have had a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases for more than 42 days, Gov. Tom Wolf announced during a press conference on Wednesday.

Montana, Hawaii and Pennsylvania have had the most consistent drop in positive cases of the virus since the pandemic began, according to a new report Wolf referenced by the Centers for Disease Control.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Pennsylvania has had 79,818 cases of COVID-19— approximately 335 more cases than the day before, according to data reported by the state Department of Health. The number of daily positive cases has continued to decrease since numbers reached as high as 1,599 in late April.

Wolf added that 24 states have seen an increase in cases as Pennsylvania’s continued to drop, which he attributed to the state’s reopening plan.

“We know our decline in cases is because of our choices because half of the states are experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases as reopening begins,” Gov. Wolf said. “Many of these states are experiencing significant case increases tied to reopening too soon or too much. Pennsylvania is not. We have remained focused on balancing economic interests with public health.”

The state’s focus on continuing to enforce the wearing of masks even in green phase counties was another reason why the state has led in its reduction of cases, according to Wolf.

“Pennsylvanians have done an excellent job at demonstrating how to balance business and public health,” Gov. Wolf said. “If we keep this up, we can continue to be a model to other states and a leader at saving lives and livelihoods during this pandemic.”

Hospitals in green-phase counties approved to allow visitors

Hospitals in counties transitioning to the green phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening plan may reopen their facilities to visitors at their own discretion, according to updated guidance released Wednesday by the Wolf administration.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s most recent update to his green-phase guidelines notes that visitation to both prisons and hospitals can resume if they are in one of 18 counties transitioning to green status Friday.

Many hospitals enacted their own visitation rules as early as mid-March. The state’s new guidance gives facilities the option to open their doors to visitors, but reminds those visitors to be diligent about  hygiene.

York-based WellSpan Health prohibited all visitations to its hospitals on March 21 save for a few exceptions such as minor patients and patients nearing the end-of-life.

WellSpan plans to begin lifting restrictions at its hospitals when nearby counties begin transitioning to the phase, said Matthew Heckel, senior media relations and communications specialist at WellSpan.

“Our number one priority during this COVID-19 pandemic has been to keep everyone in our hospitals safe,” Heckel said. “As counties continue the reopening process, the visitation policy for our hospitals and outpatient settings will likely become less restrictive; however, healthy and approved visitors would continue to be required to follow guidelines in place including the wearing of a face covering when in a WellSpan Health facility.”

UPMC Pinnacle began allowing one dedicated, on-site patient support person for each of its hospital inpatients and emergency department patients this month, with hours varying depending on the facility.

Visitors must be over the age of 18 and may be asked about recent travel and potential exposure, according to the hospital system’s guidelines.

“We continue to follow public health guidelines, and our policies will ensure the safety of our patients and staff to lower their likelihood of exposure to any illness including COVID-19,” said Kelly McCall, public relations director at UPMC Pinnacle.

State directs race, ethnicity data be included with COVID-19 test results

Pennsylvania’s Health Disparity Task Force is calling for health care organizations to include race and ethnicity data when reporting COVID-19 test results to the state. The task force, formally announced on April 15, is designed to foster health care equality for minorities.

In a call with reporters, Gov. Tom Wolf said state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine mandated that racial and ethnic demographics be included in COVID-19 test results, but 69% of race data is still unreported and there is little to no data when it comes to ethnicity.

“One of the problems we have is that we have heard how COVID-19 is hitting minority populations, in particular African-Americans, hardest across the United States and anecdotally in Pennsylvania, but we lack the statistics needed to determine the severity of this issue here,” Wolf said

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who organized the task force with Gov. Wolf, said the task force has held three meetings since its formal announcement on April 15.“Our biggest concerns heard from these communities are improving data collection and increasing access to free testing,” Fetterman said.

DOH mask mandate allows for homemade masks

A statewide order compelling employers to require all employees and customers to wear masks in their facilities will not be postponed despite a lack of available supplies.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine signed the order on April 15. The requirement goes into effect on Sunday. Failure to comply could result in fines and citations.

It is unclear how aggressively the state’s departments will enforce the order. In a phone call with press on Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf referred to the order as a set of guidelines when asked if the order would be enforced by the Pennsylvania State Police.

“Businesses are responsible for ensuring that customers abide by the protocols pertaining to customers, and the appropriate enforcement agencies are responsible for ensuring that employers abide by the protocols pertaining to employers and employees,” said Elizabeth Rementer, deputy press secretary for the Office of the Governor. “Law enforcement has been tasked with ensuring that businesses are aware that the order exists and notifying businesses that a complaint of noncompliance was received.”

During a press conference on Thursday, Levine said she would not delay the start date past April 19 for any industry.

“We recommend that if someone comes to a retailer or a grocery store and doesn’t have a mask, that they be asked to go back home and get a mask,” Levine said. “If the store has extra masks they can certainly give one and that would be great.”

The Department of Health has since released further guidance on the order, noting that masks can be obtained or made by employers or employees but must be approved by the employer in accordance with department guidelines.

Masks can be non-medical-grade and when masks aren’t available, the department also recommends using a scarf or bandana.

Levine’s order also specifies that if an employee contracts COVID-19, businesses must implement temperature screenings before employees can enter the business prior. When asked what a business should do if they purchase no-contact thermometers that cannot be delivered before Sunday, Levine said they can reach out to the department for support.