Public hearing addresses Pennsylvania’s current housing crisis

Caleb Steindel, Contributing Writer

Housing safety issues, rent affordability, and physical abuse were among the primary problems addressed when Pennsylvania lawmakers sat down last week to hear personal testimonies about how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a housing crisis for residents. 

On March 31, the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual public hearing at the request of several senators to hear from residents, homeowners, program directors, and nonprofit leaders.

Chaired by Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), the special hearing was held via Zoom because of COVID-19 concerns. The virtual nature of the hearing also provided the ability to have an increased number of attendees and participants.

Beginning at 9:00 a.m., the public hearing lasted for three hours and consisted of three panels, each addressing a unique aspect of Pennsylvania’s current housing crisis. The hearing featured various members of the public who provided insight into personal testimonies of housing struggles.

According to the preliminary agenda, the three panels involved discussions of barriers to housing security for renters, Pennsylvania’s invisible housing crisis, and how COVID-19 exacerbated housing insecurity.

The remaining members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Sens. Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia), Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), and Art Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) served as the event’s moderators. Each one took time to ask the panelists how legislators could best serve them in solving the housing crisis.

They invited renters and homeowners from across the state to the hearing to share their challenges in housing security.

Witnesses included Chapri Kelly of Philadelphia, Ashley Butler of Allegheny, Julie Barry of Erie, Jessica Lopez of Lancaster, and Willamae McCullough of Philadelphia.

Kelly spoke through tears about her experiences as a mother seeking shelter for her family. She said that she has faced eviction, separation from her children, and unsanitary living conditions, all due largely to the fact that her income did not meet the ambiguous requirements established by the landlords. She added that city council members and government programs have provided little to no help.

“Even when I had unemployment and money in my savings account, I was still being told that I was unable to rent a house because I didn’t have a job,” Kelly said. “I’m still being denied even though I have a job just because I don’t make three times the rent. Imagine being told that you can’t afford rent on a house that’s $1100 when you’re paying $70-$90 a day for a hotel. I ask everybody to think, how does this make sense to anyone?”

Ashley Butler, an Allegheny County resident, had her testimony of physical assault read by a volunteer campaign director. She testified that her landlord continuously put her in danger and defended her abuser.

“After I was assaulted, I knew that I had to get away from my husband, or I would die the next time he put his hands on me. People often assume that leaving an abuser is a black-and-white task, but it is a blend of gray, and the formula is anyone’s guess. Soon thereafter, I informed my landlord of what had transpired, and I asked permission to break my lease early and leave for my safety. My landlord denied my request. Having no choice, I tried to make it work, until my ex-husband began stalking me. I again began asking my landlord for a reprieve from my lease, but he continuously denied my request,” she said.

Pennsylvania renters weren’t the only witnesses at the hearing.

Several program directors were also present, and many of them presented solutions to the state’s housing crisis along with an analysis of the problems.

Among these were Carrie Bach, Chief Operations Officer for Voices for Independence, Katelyn Malis, Director of Program for Open Hearth, Inc., Kevin Quisenberry, Litigation Director for the Community Justice Project, Elizabeth Marx, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, and Andrea Custis, President & CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia.

Katelyn Malis noted that before COVID-19, there were over 500 people experiencing homelessness in Chester County, her place of residence. She said the number has skyrocketed in the past year, but organizations like Open Hearth that support and provide for those in need of housing making a difference. She gave an example of a woman who she helped lift out of poverty.

“With donated funds, Open Hearth was able to pay Amanda’s rent, giving her some breathing room until the backlog of unemployment filings could be processed. This also took away some stress so Amanda could focus on getting internet service for her kids’ virtual schooling and support them through these trying times.”

Kevin Quisenberry of the Community Justice Project highlighted the long-term consequences of eviction and called for increased legal assistance for renters.

“Eviction is a leading cause of homelessness, especially for families with children. It is directly linked to high rates of housing instability, which often brings about further instability—in family relationships, at school, or at work—compromising the life chances of adults and children. The General Assembly should enact legislation robustly fund legal assistance for eviction defense for lower-income Pennsylvania renters.”

During the public comment section of the hearing, one anonymous participant said that landlords should do more to help their tenants.

“Right now there are programs out there to help landlords make their housing accessible, but they are either not aware of them or are not willing to do so. We need to encourage landlords to take advantage of these programs and allow modifications to be made.”

Geoff Smith, a Pennsylvania homeowner, said he found the hearing to be enlightening and necessary, but he said that living conditions are the most important things to address since many don’t care.

“People are now stuck in unlivable apartments and the community housing organization doesn’t care about injuries or problems. Usually, they side with landlords,” he said.

Much of the immediate feedback from the audience was positive, with many viewers grateful for the dialogue.

“So grateful to everyone for having this hearing,” said one Facebook user. “Grateful to everyone for having the courage to share your stories to help others!”

The Housing Security Act is one of the ways that senators are attempting to respond to the commonwealth’s housing struggles.

Officially called Senate Bill 466, the Housing Security Act is a piece of legislation that, according to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, would provide significant help to tenants unable to keep up with rent.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed so many significant gaps in our social safety net, and one of the most significant has been housing insecurity,” said Sen. Muth. “Even before the pandemic, so many in our Commonwealth were forced to make impossible decisions between food, medicine, and paying the rent or the mortgage. This is unacceptable, and we must take action now to ensure that every Pennsylvanian has safe, affordable, and secure housing no matter where they live. This bill would create a framework for mortgage deferment and rent forgiveness for both property owners and renters.”

“To Pennsylvanians who are struggling right now, we are listening, and we will fight alongside you and for you,” said Sen. Saval. “To my fellow legislators, we have a precious change right now to create legislative solutions to mitigate decades of neglect and harm. We recognize and honor housing as one of our most basic rights by treating it that way.”

The hearing’s full recording and written testimonies can be found at

For more information on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and future meetings and hearings, visit

The committee plans to host additional hearings dealing with COVID-19 complications, including one on April 30th to address food insecurity.