Philadelphia courts pauses most evictions until end of the year

Philadelphia rowhomes (WHYY file photo)

Philadelphia rowhomes (WHYY file photo)

The Philadelphia Municipal Court has paused most evictions through the end of 2020, protecting renters unable to pay rent or utilities at a time of record unemployment and financial strain due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a nod to concerns from landlords, the order allows exceptions for breaches of lease including alleged criminal conduct or damage to the property. To evict, “landlords must demonstrate a material breach in support of their petition,” the order states.

Before this extension, the hold on lockouts was set to expire Nov. 8.

The court order came after weeks of negotiations between landlord advocates and City Council over a package of bills that would have offered the same protection to tenants. Landlord advocates wanted the moratorium to apply only to tenants who could prove a hardship related to the coronavirus pandemic, while Council argued that forcing renters to certify their financial strain would exclude many tenants.

Vikram Patel, a staff attorney at the Housing Unit of Community Legal Services, said the order will help tenants covered under a federal Center of Disease Control eviction moratorium and those unprotected by that regulation.

“We would prefer a blanket moratorium because of the exceptions involving breach of the lease, but we’re confident this will protect many tenants,” he said.

Before Thursday’s order, Patel expected to see about 2,000 evictions that were scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the courts starting Monday. The vast majority of evictions heard in Municipal Court are decided in favor of the landlord, court data shows.

Patel described this new court order as a relief.

Marlynn Orlando, the CEO of The Pennsylvania Apartment Association, which has led opposition to extending the hold on evictions in City Council, said in a prepared statement, “We are extremely sympathetic to the issues and we have been working with our residents throughout the pandemic. We genuinely want to help residents who are going through a hard time right now. But our small businesses are taking a huge hit, and we cannot continue down this road.”

Paul Cohen, the general counsel for The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO) said the organization was, and still is, in opposition to stopping evictions from moving forward.

“Not paying rent is the equivalent of stealing,” he said. “As a society, we recognize you can’t steal food from the grocery story or clothes from a department store, so why is it okay to steal the rent?”

Later on Thursday, City Council’s Housing Committee unanimously passed two renter-protection bills, sending them to the full legislative body for a vote.

One of the bills to move forward was a ban on late fees that would go until September passed with minor changes that only related to legislative findings.

Another bill aiming to extend rent repayment plan timelines however, passed with two major changes. One of the changes amended the legislation so a tenant can send a Centers for Disease Control declaration to get into a repayment plan. The CDC declaration is sworn testimony that the tenant signing can’t pay their rent because of financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second change makes it so tenants who are making new repayment plans with their landlords have to pay all owed rent by Sept. 30, 2021. This does not apply retroactively to any existing plans and those have to be paid in full by May 31, 2021.

The eviction moratorium bill was not voted on because Rep. Helen Gym declined to accept the amendment to make the bill only applicable to tenants with COVID-19 hardship. Still, she considered the court order a win.

“Though the order does not achieve the universal moratorium on all evictions we sought through our legislation, as it permits landlords to file an exception in some situations and does not cover commercial tenants, we believe it will serve to protect the vast majority of residential tenants.” Gym stated in a release.

Christina Gesualdi, a member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, suspected the bill would not go up to a vote Friday.

“The most blunt interpretation I think would be that the landlord lobby and the landlords across the city and development…that’s who [ City Council] are prioritizing,” Gesualdi said. “That’s all it tells me.”

On Thursday, Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks had sent a letter to the court’s President Judge Patrick F. Dugan, urging him to extend the moratorium on lockouts until the end of the year.

In the letter, the councilmembers wrote, “This decision is critical to the public health and to the city’s stability. This would grant time for advocates and City agencies to continue outreach both to tenants regarding their rights under the CDC order as well as to landlords regarding financial support available to them. Most critically, extending the moratorium on lockouts will reduce exposure to COVID-19, preventing unnecessary infections, or even death.”

Also in the letter, councilmembers requested that the courts make a requirement that landlords must file an affidavit before accepting an eviction filing. The proposed affidavit would state that landlords offered hardship repayment plans, scheduled a diversion hearing and informed tenants of the CDC order or received a CDC declaration from their tenants. This would also apply to landlords that filed anytime between July and Thursday.

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