‘A matter of life and death’: Judge halts Philly evictions through Oct. 7

A lawyer for Philly landlords said the reprieve is part of a “disastrous” pattern while tenant advocates described the move as one that could save lives.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Philadelphia court officials have extended a ban on evictions for another two weeks.

Municipal Court President Judge Patrick Dugan ordered that all residential evictions cease in the city through Oct. 7, extending a prior order set to expire Sept. 23, and giving renters temporary protection from lockouts.

Landlords say the extension is the least of their worries as the City Council considers an eviction moratorium that would run through December, but Rasheedah Phillips, from Community Legal Services, said the added time is “really a matter of life and death right now.”

“That space of two weeks between now and when lockouts can resume can determine whether someone is able to access rental assistance, whether they’re able to get on a payment plan,” Phillips said. “It gives people two more weeks to figure out where they’re going to move to so they don’t end up homeless and further exposed to COVID.”

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When the courts reopened this month, more than 1,000 households were pulled into eviction proceedings.

This influx of cases seen across the country prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to step in and ban the displacement of renters who have lost work during the pandemic and risk living in cramped spaces or becoming homeless if locked out.

The CDC’s order protects from eviction through the end of the year but it isn’t automatic and requires renters to fill out paperwork if they want to be protected. It does not forgive past-due rent.

Meanwhile, city officials, last week, announced its federally funded COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program would match up to $1,500 in tenants’ rent, up from $750. Applications to the program are open through Sept. 30.

Phillips said the additional two-week ban on lockouts could help families tap into these types of support and landlords recoup some of their losses.

Paul Cohen, legal counsel for local landlord group HAPCO, said the two-week ban on evictions won’t make much of a difference to landlords who have already gone months without rental payments. He said the concern is a larger trend of postponing evictions.

“The unintended consequences of these actions are going to be disastrous,” Cohen said.

HAPCO’s attorney said some of the group’s landlords have not received rent since February, leaving rental property owners’ bills piling up. The rental assistance programs meant to help both tenants and landlords, he said, have fallen short.

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To HAPCO, postponing the evictions isn’t a long-term solution. The courts will be flooded with eviction cases in the new year, which could take months to process, said Cohen, and by that point, landlords may be in foreclosure.

“Landlords need some type of assistance, they need a backstop, they need to have money that the tenants aren’t paying,” said Cohen. “If you’re going to give the tenants free rent, which is essentially what they’re doing, then the government needs to compensate the landlords for that.”

Phillips also says the bubbling eviction crisis requires a long-term solution, preferably at the federal level, though she argues there’s room for local government to step in and fill in gaps.

“This idea that tenants have to be pitted against landlords… and we can only ask for one thing that benefits one set of people, I don’t think that’s true. I think we can choose differently,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the city’s new Eviction Diversion Program, which brings tenants and landlords into mediation, is an example of where both parties can win.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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