Area economic agencies are offering relief from coronavirus money woes. But will they be ‘equal to the task?’

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Greg Flisram (center), executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, at his first board meeting in January. Also pictured are Diamonte Walker (left), the URA's deputy executive director, and board president Sam Williamson (right). (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

Greg Flisram (center), executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, at his first board meeting in January. Also pictured are Diamonte Walker (left), the URA's deputy executive director, and board president Sam Williamson (right). (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

Update (3/19/2020): The Urban Redevelopment Authority is offering $1.3 million in total aid, according to information shared at its March 19 board meeting.

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] is poised to make more loans available to small businesses and add funds to a program that helps people who are facing housing crises.

The proposed moves — one of which is subject to approval of the URA board at a meeting expected to be conducted virtually and by phone on Thursday — would add $650,000 to local efforts to address the economic effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. It comes as Allegheny County tries to marshal resources and foundations dedicate millions to the needs created by the pandemic and resulting economic shock.

Directors of both the URA and of Allegheny County Economic Development said their agencies are allowing recipients of their business loans to defer payments for the time being. The county department isn’t sending bills to its borrowers. The URA is asking affected borrowers to submit some documentation of economic losses caused by the virus.

“We’re trying to get out in front of this a little bit,” URA Executive Director Greg Flisram said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t know if our resources will be equal to the task as far as the economic emergency that’s out there. But we want to be proactive and help our customers and our small business clients in surviving this economic hit that we’re all taking.”

Allegheny County Economic Development Director Lance Chimka is coordinating the county's part of a statewide effort to document the need for an Economic Injury Designation, which, if granted by the federal government, would open the door to increased Small Business Administration aid. When that takes shape, he'll talk with officials at the state, the foundations and area lenders about how to meet remaining needs.

"[I]f this is prolonged, this will be a resource need that is unparalleled in scope and breadth and it's going to far outstrip the resources that we have at our organization,” Chimka said.

The URA tomorrow will hold its first board meeting since the virus hit. Board members will call into the meeting, and the public can participate or listen electronically.

The board’s agenda indicates that the agency plans to create a new program to help households struggling to meet expenses due to COVID-19. Pending board approval, it would be modeled on the existing Housing Stabilization Program, which assists city residents who are below certain income thresholds with rent, security deposits, utility deposits, payments in arrears and other costs associated with housing crises.

The agenda indicates that the URA would shift $300,000 to the new program from the Housing Opportunity Fund Demonstration Program, which had, to date, assisted with maintenance work at a shelter for the homeless. The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh would administer the program.

Flisram said he also intends to extend $350,000 in small business microloans — topping out at $15,000, with no interest — to owners affected by the crisis. It was unclear late Tuesday whether that would require board approval.

The URA is detailing its response to the crisis here.

The Hebrew Free Loan Association has created a Coronavirus Financial Bridge Loan Program, offering interest-free loans of as much as $5,000 to residents of the six-county area who have lost wages or business earnings, face increased childcare costs or incurred medical or study-abroad-cancellation expenses.

A coalition of Pittsburgh-area foundations late Monday announced a coordinated response to the crisis, in which they’ve marshalled $10 million to provide emergency help to address the crisis. The philanthropies — The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Hillman Family Foundations — worked with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania to survey 1,600 nonprofit agencies regarding anticipated needs.

The nonprofit sector is struggling to handle an anticipated increase in needs, plus the logistical challenges of providing human services in the era of social distancing, Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments said in an interview.

"I see folks desperately trying to adjust to a situation that there is literally no playbook for," Oliphant said. "We're seeing a lot of concerns from nonprofit organizations about how to continue their mission when they're not able to interact in the normal way that they would."

In addition to its $1 million contribution to the foundations' emergency fund, The Heinz Endowments is setting aside $2 million to help its grantees to meet needs, or reconfigure their operations to deal with the logistics of the crisis. There’s more such giving to come, Oliphant said.

The philanthropic response, though, isn't limitless. Foundations' resources are typically tied to investments. "We're not immune to the economic forces that we see playing out every day," Oliphant said. "We will have less resources to contribute as a result of a downturn like this."

Between the new needs and the diminished portfolios, he said, "we have to shift resources away from some things that have been on our wish list to things that are on more of our basic needs list. This is a moment when we all have to look at what the community desperately needs."

The foundations, Oliphant said, have been involved for weeks in COVID-19 planning with government, businesses and nonprofit agencies. He said the crisis has revealed both our region's strength through collaboration and our entire society's fragility.

"There are big questions to be asked when this is all done about what the hell happened in our country, and what the hell is going in with our economy that ... 40% of the people in our country can't adapt to having an additional $400 expense.”

Oliphant said there has to be a national conversation about the economy. "We have got to look at what we're doing to people and what we expect of them and what we don't provide by way of a social safety net."

Update (3/17/2020): This story was updated to include comment from Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, and includes revised and updated information from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Allegheny County Economic Development.

PublicSource separately receives funding from The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Hillman Family Foundations.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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