Philly Council pushes to extend protections for renters amid COVID surge

United States Postal Service carrier Henrietta Dixon walks her route to deliver mail in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

United States Postal Service carrier Henrietta Dixon walks her route to deliver mail in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A battery of expiring Philadelphia renter protections may be extended by City Council –– but with more stringent eligibility requirements, if some groups have their way.

The legislative body is mulling an extension of a raft of COVID-era tenant assistance bills from Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks known as the Emergency Housing Protection Act. Citing resurgent viral case counts, the new legislation would extend elements of these bills that contained sunset provisions while also reinstating a now-expired local eviction moratorium through the end of the year.

At hearings on the new legislation, Gym estimated that some 4,400 evictions had been filed in local courts and that over 2,000 renters were in “imminent” jeopardy of evictions. She cast the renewed protections as a measure to slow the spread of the virus by preventing their displacement.

“There is no end in sight,” Gym said. “It’s not a matter of winning or losing, it’s a matter of public health.”

A local eviction moratorium lapsed on Aug. 31, although Philadelphia courts have voluntarily paused the execution of evictions through Nov. 7. The legislation would extend a ban on late fees and interest charges as well as a requirement that landlords offer tenants the option to enter into a nine-month-long rental repayment plan prior to an eviction. Both were set to expire in June 2021. Under the proposed bill, they would remain in place until next fall.

But proposed revision to these extensions from the Philadelphia Apartment Association, a landlord group, would also add a new condition, requiring tenants to certify that they had experienced a COVID-related hardship –– although it was not clear precisely what this would entail.

The groups advocated for this provision — which was still under negotiation as of writing — in hearing testimony.

“We would support an eviction moratorium for people who have COVD-19 financial hardships,” said Brianna Westbrooks of the Philadelphia Apartment Association. “We do believe they should have grace periods. But we have members, some of whom have gone as long as seven months without collecting rent.”

Tenant groups underscored that putting more of the onus on renters to seek relief could result in more de facto evictions. Stephanie Dorenbosch, of the Tenant Union Representative Network, said her organization has already seen problems with tenants ostensibly protected by an eviction moratorium receiving notices about a landlord’s intent to seek eviction.

“Many simply move out,” Dorenbosch said. “We have to hit pause on the entire eviction process.”

Evictions increase COVID transmission

City Council heard from a string of tenants under threat of eviction on Wednesday, many of whom were moved to tears during their testimony. Demetrius Sanders, a tenant residing in West Philly who is currently unemployed, said her landlord had sent her an eviction notice earlier in the year and repeatedly sought to pressure her out of her apartment over unpaid rent, in spite of a court shutdown.

“I have lost my family to this virus,” Sanders said. “I am trying to find a new job, but the situation is getting serious…It’s not a home if you’re constantly worried about being put out in the street.”

Eva Gladstein, the city’s Deputy Managing Director for Health and Human Services, noted that while the city was preparing to expand both shelter and long-term housing capacity, these resources were already under considerable strain, even without a wave of evictions.

Mike Levy, a University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist, said that research found that housing instability was linked to increased rates of virus transmission even for those that were not evicted, as displaced residents sought beds with relatives, city shelters or homeless encampments.

“Evictions increase cases not just among evicted households, but for all households, as the increased transmission due to evictions spreads through the interconnected city,” he said.

Dr. Ala Stanford, of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, also spoke in support of the bills, noting the disproportionate impact the now-resurgent virus had on Black and Latino residents. She said a majority of deaths in Philadelphia were African American, despite Black people comprising 42% of the city’s population.

“I am having stress because it’s October but it feels like April again. People should not be removed from their homes right now,” she said. “With coronavirus, people have already had the floor taken out from under them. Don’t take the roof.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY 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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