Thousands of renters won another reprieve from eviction in Philadelphia this week, with an eleventh-hour decision to keep courts shuttered through early September.
Landlord-tenant court had been set to reopen on July 6 after a nearly four-month interregnum caused by the coronavirus outbreak. But resurgent virus cases and other issues led to a Thursday administrative order from the city’s First Judicial District, extending the shutdown through Sept. 2nd for any “non-emergency business.”
City Councilmember Helen Gym, who had advocated for the extension, hailed the decision.
“As public officials, housing advocates, landlords, and tenants work together to prevent an onslaught of evictions and preserve housing and community stability, the courts must be our partners,” she said, in a statement. Today, the First Judicial District has made clear that they are partners.”
While the city issued a moratorium on new evictions through August, existing cases were set to resume as early as next week.
Gym estimated some 1,800 Philadelphians were facing eviction cases when local courtrooms shut down in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Several dozen cases, which typically last just a few minutes, were set to resume on Monday, prior to the extension.
Among other concerns, housing advocates said reopening now would have meant that tenants fearful of appearing in court due to the virus may have automatically lost eviction cases.
Housing advocates have also predicted a possible surge in evictions following the resumption of landlord-tenant court, as renters face a perfect storm of a battered economy and dwindling unemployment benefits.
“Many households in Philadelphia were rent-burdened even before COVID-19,” she said. “We’re going to come crashing into a massive eviction crisis.”
Research has shown that evictions disproportionately impact families, women-led households and people of color.
Landlord groups, like the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, or HAPCO, have resisted the eviction moratorium and a recent raft of housing bills that included additional renter protections and were signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney this week.
HAPCO board member Rob Levine decried both the recently enacted legislation and the latest shutdown extension order.
“Under the guise of the ongoing health crisis, the same members of City Council who introduced the now-laws have gotten the presidents of both Municipal Court and Common Pleas Court to…hand down another draconian order,” he said.
Levine said many landlords were “already on the verge of bankruptcy” and that the new renter protections would result in the long-term elimination of rental housing. He said the group was preparing to file a federal suit next week over the new legislation, which he described as “onerous and obstructionist.”
The board member argued that eviction court could proceed virtually in the meantime.
“Technology is readily available and used elsewhere that can enable the wheels of justice to turn while keeping all parties safe, without this further eroding of rightful property protections,” he said.
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.