Landlords resist new laws to freeze rents and ban evictions for COVID-impacted renters

A protested eviction in Germantown, July 2012

The Philadelphia Sheriff enforces an eviction order. (WHYY)

Landlord advocacy groups oppose a set of proposed new laws that would extend a ban on evictions for Philadelphia tenants who lost their jobs because of the pandemic and create other new protections for vulnerable renters.

A package of six bills proposed by Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier would extend the ban, freeze rents for affected tenants through mid-2021, prohibit late fees, and crack down on illegal lockouts.

The package, called the Emergency Housing Protection Act, would also require landlords to enter into payment agreements for past-due rent and mandate mediation sessions before evictions of eligible renters could proceed.

The councilmembers announced changes Friday meant to address landlords’ concerns. The eviction ban would end August 31 and the rent freeze and late-fee ban would last for just nine months after that date, instead of a full year as previously proposed. The protections would only be available for tenants who provide documentation of the financial impact they have suffered because of the COVID-19 emergency.

But an attorney for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO) said he still opposes much of the package. Paul Cohen argued the laws would give landlords no way to compel many tenants to pay their rent, leaving them without revenues to pay for mortgages and upkeep.

“Mortgages, taxes, utilities, repairs. Who’s going to pay for the repairs to a property when there’s no rent coming in?” said Cohen, who is also a small landlord. Under the proposed bills, “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?’ You have no absolutely nothing you can do, whatsoever.”

Gary Jonas, vice president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia (BIA), said during a hearing of council’s housing committee that his organization supports the fee waiver and anti-lockout measures, but opposes the rent-freeze and payment-plan bills.

David Feldman, executive director of the Development Workshop, a construction industry group, also asked the councilmembers to pull the rent stabilization measure, saying some landlords will need to raise their rents in the next year to cover possible tax increases.

Cohen and others argued that the laws became less necessary Thursday when the state legislature passed a budget that would spend $175 million in federal CARES funding on direct assistance to renters and homeowners. The measure now heads to Gov. Wolf for his signature.

State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Phila) said yesterday that homeowners and renters who have lost income may be eligible for six months of grants covering up to $750 per month for renters or up to $1000 per month for homeowners. He said the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency will soon have grant applications available.

Mayor Jim Kenney also cited the new funding in a statement yesterday, saying he hoped it would help residents, small landlords and small businesses suffering from financial hardship created by the pandemic. But Kenney declined to say whether he supported the council package of tenant-protection bills.

The mayor “appreciates the sponsors taking the lead and getting ahead of what likely could be a mass eviction crisis in Philadelphia,” a spokeswoman said, as there is already an estimated backlog of 5,000 eviction cases in the municipal court.

“We need a plan to protect renters that gives them time to put their lives back together without the constant threat of homelessness. We need a plan to make sure landlords get paid. The bulk of our affordable housing is provided by small landlords, who often themselves are stressed financially,” Gauthier said.

“And we need a plan to avoid a massive wave of evictions, which would create an unprecedented burden on our courts and city services,” she said.

Several renters testified at yesterday’s hearing that they have lost most or all of their income since the pandemic began and have been told they will be evicted for non-payment of rent, with some describing landlords who made threatening statements or shut off their utilities.

Follow PlanPhilly

Sonam Parikh said the pandemic forced her to temporarily close her newly opened café, Mina’s World, in West Philadelphia. Her parents, who are immigrants, had serious COVID-19 infections and her father died at the end of March. A federal PPP loan she received only covered a small amount of pay for her employees, who are facing financial hardship.

Her own landlord asked her to vacate her home last Friday, she said.

“A week ago I thought my life was hard, dealing with my dad’s death, taking care of my mom, fighting tooth-and-nail for literal pennies for my staff, but today I’m standing before you and telling you my life feels unsurvivable. I don’t know that I have many options,” Parikh said. “I just have my community and my councilmembers, who I strongly [urge] to think about the hundreds of thousands of lives that could be impacted by these desperately needed and necessary housing protections.”

A South Philadelphia resident and domestic worker named Maria said she has only been able to work one day a week and can no longer afford her rent. When she told her landlord, he began sending her abusive messages demanding payment, and later forced himself into her home, she said.

“I told him to leave, that he could not be in my home without a mask or without my permission,” she said through a translator. “He told me he would not leave even after I told him I would call the police. He laughed at me, thinking that I would not do it. I call on members of the city council to vote in support of this act so that all tenants such as myself will be protected for the duration of this pandemic.”

One of the six bills would crack down on so-called “self-help evictions,” when a landlord or his agent seeks to force out a tenant. While these were already prohibited, the bill would toughen the penalty for such evictions and clarify how punitive damages are calculated.

A key part of the package is the proposed Eviction Diversion Program. It is modeled on Philadelphia’s nationally-known foreclosure prevention program, which was launched in April 2008 during the Great Recession and is credited with preventing nearly 14,000 foreclosures.

The new initiative would require landlords who want to evict a COVID-impacted tenant to first participate in a conciliation conference with a mediator and a housing counselor. The only exemptions would be for evictions necessary to prevent an imminent threat of harm by the person being evicted, and for landlords who are not offered a conciliation conference within 45 days of requesting one.

Another hearing on the package of bills will be held June 5.

Broke in PhillyThe Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org. A collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.