JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – From his home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Marlin Parker browsed online for places to move.

“I kept seeing articles that Johnstown was a depressed market, but to me that meant there are opportunities there,” he said.

“It’s beautiful, and I was amazed at how cheap the properties were and how low the violence was.”

Although a work promotion is keeping him in Washington, D.C., for now, Parker said he has purchased some rental properties in Johnstown – houses in Coopersdale and Southmont, and a duplex in Johnstown’s 8th Ward.

The monthly rent for his properties is between $600 and $700, and all are occupied, Parker said.

The same properties in D.C. would be rented for $1,800 per month, said Parker, now a member of the Greater Johnstown Landlord Association.

An increasing number of rental units in the $650 range may be a bit of a change for Johnstown.

“Rents have gone up over the last many months, certainly since COVID began,” Greater Johnstown Landlord Association President Rich Hudec said.

“Traditionally, we would see rent in the city at about $500, plus utilities. Now $600 to $650 is more common.”

When rent rises

In addition to the change in rent, the supply of available apartments in Johnstown is also unusually tight.

Hudec said he is surprised that demand is strong for apartments in Johnstown even as rent climbs.

“I’ve heard there’s more people working remotely, and traveling as medical workers,” he said. “But it’s puzzling to me: Where are the people coming from who are paying this?”

For Parker, the cost of rent reflects the quality of a unit.

“I don’t put a property on the market that I wouldn’t want my grandmother living in,” Hudec said. “That’s what I stand by.”

He doesn’t believe in raising rent unless, hypothetically, Johnstown officials increased taxes substantially, he said.

“Rent between $600 and $700, I think, appeals to people outside the area,” Hudec said, “but once you get above that rate, you compete with bigger markets.”

A national trend

Across the nation, costs are increasing.

The Consumer Price Index increased 7% over the 12 months ending in December.

It was the largest 12-month increase since the period ending June 1982, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

The index for rent rose 0.4% in December, the same increases as in October and November.

People with month-to-month leases are subject to evictions and sudden rent increases, said Lauren Catalano, managing attorney at Laurel Legal Services Inc.

“An issue we’ve been seeing is some people are filing reports saying that rent jumped up in price without much warning,” she said.

The company provides free civil legal services to low- income clients residing in six western Pennsylvania counties including Cambria.

Assistance, evictions

Renters have faced multiple phases of challenges as the pandemic has progressed since March of 2020.

“Moratoriums on evictions held everything in place for a while,” Catalano said. “Then, Emergency Rental Assistance Program or ERAP money, started flowing, so people started using that. Now it seems to be morphing into the next phase – there’s no leeway given on late rent at this point.”

She said programs including ERAP are available. Locally, that program is administered by county governments.

In addition, people may find help in other ways. The state is accepting applications for Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), a temporary emergency program to help low-income families pay overdue water bills.

In-person applications are available at local county assistance offices, the state’s web site reads.

Catalano said it is valid to evict someone for not paying rent for a month.

“There’s just less sympathy (compared to the start of the pandemic),” she said. “It’s creating an insane burden on people who have nowhere else to go.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

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