Philadelphia halts evictions as coronavirus bears down

A protested eviction in Germantown, July 2012

The Philadelphia Sheriff enforces an eviction order. (WHYY)

Philadelphia’s municipal courts will not execute any evictions for the next two weeks, in response to the spreading coronavirus pandemic. 

The stay on evictions is scheduled to start Monday, March 16, just four days after City Councilmember Helen Gym introduced a resolution calling for a temporary moratorium on evictions. 

The court’s decision means evictions already scheduled will not move forward for half a month, and people will be allowed to stay in homes for that duration. But the court will continue to hear new cases and operate as usual with nearly 100 eviction cases scheduled to be heard Monday by a judge in municipal court. 

“The landlord-tenant officer’s office… will remain open to process new work,” reads an email sent by the court late Sunday night. 

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley confirmed eight cases of the highly infectious coronavirus earlier Sunday. Officials said it appeared that the newest incidents stemmed from people who had not yet developed symptoms and that they expect the number of cases to surge in the coming days.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday against any gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks, a drastic measure that officials hope will help slow the spread of COVID-19 and contain a rapidly escalating national health emergency.

Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant court is usually extremely crowded, especially in the early morning and early afternoon.

There are 566 evictions scheduled in the Municipal Court’s Courtroom 3 this week, according to Rachel Garland, a managing attorney with Community Legal Services, a nonprofit that represents low-income tenants in the courtroom.

None of this is enough,” said Garland. “When the court fails to take action and put in effect an eviction moratorium, we are putting our most vulnerable at risk. We are forcing people to choose between defending their homes in court and all of the medical advice we are getting from experts.”

A press officer for the First Judicial District did not respond to a request for comment late Sunday night. 

At a press conference Sunday, the city’s Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the administration is working to manage the coronavirus crisis through “deep poverty and making sure we have appropriate services for our most vulnerable populations.” 

Philadelphia Gas Works, the city’s Water Department and other utilities late last week suspended utility shutoffs in response to the outbreak.

PHA suspending evictions, offering waivers

Elsewhere in the city, the Philadelphia Housing Authority suspended all evictions for 30 days, starting on Friday, March 13. The agency is postponing all court appointments for residents who are facing charges of failure to pay rent. 

The authority will also offer hardship waivers to residents who lost a job or suffered a pay cut because of the pandemic.

The decision to stay evictions was one of few public concessions to coronavirus made by Philadelphia’s local courts. The city’s local judicial system is expected to operate as usual this week. Also on Sunday, The Philadelphia Public Defenders Union sent an email to the courts, asking officials to shut down operations.

“In the last 24 hours alone there has been a huge national push to keep people from leaving their homes,” the union’s letter reads. “However, this system is telling our clients that they must appear in court or a warrant will be issued for their arrest.”

On the civil side, all cases could easily just be stayed for 30 days, according to George Donnelly of the Public Interest Law Center. Chicago’s Cook County court system did just that on Friday. Washington D.C. also stayed all evictions and foreclosures and postponed any new jury trials, although ongoing jury trials are expected to move forward.  Federal courts in Pennsylvania have stopped jury trials as have Common Pleas courts in Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware Counties as well as all courts in New Jersey. 

“Keeping the courts open, on the civil side especially, doesn’t make much sense at this point,” says Donnelly. “On the criminal side, it’s one thing because there are some pretty complicated procedural and Constitutional requirements that are a little more complex to work through. But you can just stay everything on the civil side.”

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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