Philadelphia to temporarily block landlords from enforcing evictions

Housing advocates protest evictions in Philadelphia

A group of housing advocates protesting evictions tried to block the court entrance Sept. 3, 2020. (Courtesy of Sterling Johnson)

Philadelphia court officials will announce a temporary stay on lockouts related to eviction orders Tuesday, PlanPhilly has learned.

The move comes as landlord-tenant proceedings begin to ramp up at city courts after months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic and a statewide moratorium on evictions that ended on Aug. 31 despite calls to the Pennsylvania legislature to extend it from Gov. Tom Wolf.

But while some restrictions remain in place, the Tuesday reopening of courtrooms means at least some eviction orders could — in theory — move forward. The local eviction restriction will add a layer of protection for tenants who are not protected by a Centers for Disease Control public health order blocking certain evictions announced last week. The CDC order is intended to prevent an anticipated avalanche of evictions due to economic stresses caused by the pandemic and related shutdowns. Homelessness and displacement increase the risk of spreading virus and are linked to poor health outcomes.

Local landlord group HAPCO said it was informed courts would not enforce lockout orders for an additional two weeks.

Paul Cohen, an attorney for HAPCO, criticized the latest delay.

“This will have many unintended consequences for both landlords and tenants,” he said. “Stopping evictions may help tenants in the short term, but you aren’t helping them in the long term.”

Community Legal Services, a legal aid group that assists low-income tenants, also confirmed details of the latest delay. CLS attorney Rasheedah Philips called on the courts to go further.

“We would like to see no less than a 30-day stay of lockouts and eviction hearings,” she said. “We look forward to the city and court’s partnership in taking all necessary steps to minimize the lifelong impacts that evictions will have on Philadelphians.”

The nonprofit legal clinic indicated it would also ask officials to reissue notices of pending lockouts and inform tenants of their rights under the new CDC moratorium.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia courts did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but sources said a formal statement from the city was expected later today.

Mayor Jim Kenney said last week when he announced a separate eviction diversion program that the city’s goal is “to keep residents in their homes.”

The latest order accompanies other shifts within the court system. Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant officer, a private attorney responsible for executing lockouts on behalf of the courts, caught the attention of state ethics watchdogs earlier this summer. A judge who long presided over the city’s landlord-tenant courts is set to be replaced in this administrative role, following criticism from housing advocates.

Groups like HAPCO have repeatedly said the delay in evictions saddled landlords with non-paying tenants and called for more government subsidies to assist both property owners and tenants harmed by the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

After today’s news, Cohen issued a call for tax incentives to help patch landlords’ bottom line.

“If the government wants to stop the property owner from collecting rent then they should at least not have to pay property taxes,” Cohen said.

Philips called for additional time to put more eviction protections and emergency housing programs in place for an estimated tens of thousands of Philadelphia households at risk of eviction.

“It is crucial that the court provide additional time to avoid housing instability and homelessness that will further exacerbate the health and poverty crisis we are dealing with,” she said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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