As the end of the month approaches, and rent becomes due, Philadelphia officials have strong words about evictions.
“If your landlord changes your locks, bars your door, cuts off your utilities, or removes your possessions or otherwise forces you out of your home, they are breaking the law,” said Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services. “You can call 911 and report an illegal eviction to the police or call the tenant hotline at 267-443-2500.”
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has ordered all courtrooms in the state to close until Monday, April 6. Without a court order, it is illegal to evict anyone.
But renter advocates fear that as the first of April approaches, and with many thousands out of work, some landlords may retaliate against those who are unable to pay.
Rachel Garland of Community Legal Services, which represents poor renters in eviction court, said they’ve seen an uptick in illegal lockouts. Usually, her office gets two such cases a week, but over the last weekend alone, they saw seven.
Garland said they’ve heard of landlords removing the doors to people’s homes to get them to move out, as well as utility shut-offs, which most companies have also barred at the macro level.
Last week one of the city’s largest landlord advocacy organizations, the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), encouraged all its members to follow city orders against evictions. Local courts issued a two-week moratorium on evictions before the larger court system shut down.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney denounced those who would first look after their own financial interests over the greater public good during a pandemic.
“My advice to landlords is the same as it is to owners of shuttered hospitals,” Kenney said.
“Be mature, be responsible, be a good citizen and try to do your best to get us all through this.”
Courts are slated to open again on April 6 and there is not yet word on whether an extension will be issued, according to press representatives for Philadelphia’s First Judicial District.
Public interest lawyers like Garland are seeking to extend the closure, fearing packed courts and uncertainty among vulnerable tenants.
“There are still court dates on the books, so we may all have to show up to crowded court rooms on Monday, April 6,” Garland said. “Tenants are still being forced to scramble and go out and find new housing in anticipation of possibly having a court date April 6. If the court were to decide now to extend the moratorium, it would give tenants that much longer of a buffer.”
A press representative for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said there has been no announcement beyond the original order. But Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said he would not be surprised if the closures were extended, although he qualified that by saying he obviously could not speak for the high court.
Philadelphia officials say they are hoping to roll out assistance for renters in the future, but they repeatedly underscored that any aid the city offers would be extremely limited because the municipal budget simply doesn’t allow for the scale of intervention required.
“Unlike the federal government, we don’t print money,” Kenney said.
At the Tuesday press conference, a no-strings-attached cash assistance program for renters — which Kenney highlighted in his budget address earlier this month — was noted as a program the city still hopes to pursue. As originally conceived, the program would offer $400-600 in unconditional cash to 500 families a month and a similar amount in a rental voucher to another 500 families.
The city also rolled out a separate renter aid program in January, which sought to give vouchers for owners of affordable housing funded by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to help cover for families struggling to make rent.
A city spokesperson could not provide more details, saying it was premature to talk about the expansion of the program.
“It’s a relatively small program…and we know the need is huge,” Abernathy said. “We are going to need to do more, but we need our federal government to step up. We are not going to be able to do this all by ourselves.”