Coronavirus inspires Philadelphia to consider a moratorium on evictions

At a City Council meeting, attendees were told to use every other chair to reduce the chances of exposure to coronavirus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At a City Council meeting, attendees were told to use every other chair to reduce the chances of exposure to coronavirus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Councilmember Helen Gym wants Philadelphia to consider a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, residential tax liens, and utility cut-offs in the event of a major coronavirus outbreak.

“I know these are somber and uncertain times for all of us as a city,” said Gym, in a speech before an unusually empty City Council chamber. “This resolution is about what it looks like when we come together, instead of pulling apart in a time of fear and uncertainty.”

City Council does not have the power to halt evictions and foreclosures, although Gym pointed to other cities like San Jose and San Francisco where municipal legislative bodies have passed laws to stymie evictions related to the outbreak.

The Miami Police Department said it would no longer enforce evictions after Miami-Dade County announced a state of emergency. In Italy, which hosts the second-largest outbreak in the world, mortgage payments have been suspended in recognition that it will be harder for homeowners to keep up with payments as the economy falters.

Gym said that Philadelphia’s new sheriff, Rochelle Bilal, is open to discussion about her office’s enforcement of foreclosure and tax lien proceedings. Bilal is currently traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Eviction falls under the purview of the municipal courts. The Landlord & Tenant Officer, which enforces evictions for the court, was not available for comment Thursday.

The First Judicial District and Philadelphia’s municipal courts are still determining how to proceed.

“[First Judicial District] leaders have been meeting internally, and with City partners, on a consistent basis to determine which, if any, operations may need to be temporarily postponed,” said Gabriel Roberts, the director of communications for the courts.

Press representatives for PECO and Philadelphia Gas Works, the city’s electric and gas utilities, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the resolution. The Kenney administration said the mayor is reviewing the proposal, which appeared to have the support of most of the Council on Thursday.

“We need to be able to keep people in their homes in the event that they fall ill or have a required quarantine,” Gym said. “We don’t want people to end up on the street.”

Coronavirus presents a significant challenge to city homeless shelters, which already struggle with crowding and a lack of resources.

Some advocates also said that landlord-tenant court itself could be a disease vector. The chambers are often crammed with people, who must sit and wait for hours before their cases are heard.

“Having dozens of people in that room every single day, in close quarters together, seems like a recipe for disaster from a public health system point of view,” said George Donnelly, a civil rights attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

Such actions are not without precedent. There is a citywide pause for evictions around Christmas, and the Sheriff’s Office in the past has periodically paused foreclosures.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, in a speech Thursday, called for a similar policy nationwide. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said that a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoff would help ensure that “everyone has access to clean water, electricity, heat and air conditioning” during the public health crisis.

“We don’t want people to end up on the street.”

Gym’s resolution came out in tandem with a resolution from Councilmember Kendra Brooks calling for an “action plan” to address the needs of the service sector and health care workers who cannot work from home in the face of the pandemic.

“Not only are service and health care workers at a high risk of contracting the virus because their work requires regular contact with the public,” said Brooks in a written statement, “but many can’t afford to have their hours cut or stay home when they are ill. They can’t just work from home.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke said that conversations about how to help city residents economically endangered by the coronavirus outbreak are ongoing. But he said that something more than interest rate and payroll tax cuts — policies promoted by President Donald Trump’s administration — would be needed to help many Philadelphians.

WHYY 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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