City Council approves package of bills to aid renters strained by pandemic

Rowhouses line North 29th Street in Philadelphia

Rowhouses line North 29th Street in Philadelphia. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

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Philadelphia City Council has unanimously approved a slate of bills that aim to shield renters from housing strains during the COVID-19 crisis.

Five bills, dubbed the “Emergency Housing Protection Act,” passed a final vote on Thursday. This package will create an eviction diversion program, extend an eviction moratorium through August, create a yearlong repayment plan for low-income renters, waive late fees on certain rent payments, and allow renters illegally locked out of their homes to recover related damages.

Councilmember Helen Gym, who helped author parts of the legislation along with colleagues Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier, hailed the approval of the legislative package.

“In 12 days’ time, rent is due again,” Gym said during the council’s session on Thursday. “Stable housing is as much a means of racial and economic justice as it is a means of economic recovery.”

Evictions disproportionately impact Black residents, particularly women-led households. One study found that, in Philadelphia, 80% of tenants targeted for eviction were people of color and 70% were women of color.

Brooks sounded tearful as she marked her first major legislative victory since taking office in January.

“As someone who has faced housing insecurity firsthand, I know these protections will have enormous impact on Philadelphia families,” she said. “When families have homes to stay in, our whole city can be safer and healthier.”

The package was initially introduced in April. A sixth bill, which would have limited landlords from increasing rents, died in committee under pressure from industry groups. An associated resolution that called on the state and Congress to provide municipalities with a comprehensive relief package in light of the pandemic passed earlier in the year.

Although one measure that passed Thursday extends an eviction and foreclosure moratorium through August 31, the Federal Housing Administration coincidentally announced on Wednesday that it would extend a national moratorium through the same timeline.

Gauthier also highlighted a separate effort Wednesday night that saw the council pass budget bills out of committee that would restore some $20 million set to be cut from the city’s Housing Trust Fund. A revised budget, introduced by Mayor Jim Kenney after a revenue shortfall linked to the coronavirus, sought to make even deeper cuts to the affordable housing fund.

“If adopted, this will go a long way towards generating and preserving affordable housing here in Philadelphia,” she said.

Housing advocates praised the newly enacted legislation.

“This package of bills will stabilize housing in our city and ensure that renters and landlords are able to come to agreements to keep people in their homes,” said Rachel Garland, the managing attorney of legal aid group Community Legal Services’ housing unit. “This vital legislation will help people ‘shelter in place’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to prevent a second wave of the virus.”

Despite broad Council support for the emergency housing bills, landlord groups such as the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia had criticized the legislation.

“You can’t charge them a late charge and you can’t take them to court, so what are you supposed to do when a tenant says, ‘I’m not going to pay the rent?’” Paul Cohen, an attorney for the association, told PlanPhilly in May. “You have no absolutely nothing you can do, whatsoever.”

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