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Tenants fear eviction. Landlords fear bankruptcy. How can Philly balance the two?

A rooming house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A rooming house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on NBC10.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to prevent people from earning paychecks, Philadelphia is struggling to strike a delicate balance between the needs of newly unemployed renters and those of landlords with bank debts to pay off.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has declared a state of emergency through at least April 30 due to COVID-19. During that time, landlords are banned from evicting anyone – but tenants’ rights groups now want to extend the current moratorium for at least two months past the end of the state of emergency.

“The proposed extension will give tenants time to begin to stabilize their income, comply with Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order, which now extends to the end of April, and work with their landlords to enter into new payment agreements,” the 13 groups wrote in a letter addressed to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council.

They argue that lifting the eviction moratorium as soon as the state of emergency is over won’t allow people time to earn enough money to pay past-due rent.

And, they add, the shutdown of nonessential businesses is keeping some people from being able to move out by the agreed-upon date on their lease. Realtors are not showing properties in person, and moving companies are similarly hard to hire due to the shutdown.

Fifty-one percent of city residents are renters. The group says failing to protect them beyond the state of emergency could trigger mass evictions that “will cause major destabilization for the City, its renters and its landlords.”

But landlords have their own bills to pay.

Paul Cohen, the general counsel for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), said landlords in the city have been working with renters during the pandemic, and his group came out early on in support of a federal freeze on evictions and foreclosures.

However, he said landlords are afraid about their own futures and want to see more protections, too.

“Your small landlords are people that don’t have a lot of money. They’re not wealthy people. They’re people that are trying to make a go of it with what little they have,” Cohen said, adding that about half of Philadelphia’s rental units are owned not by big companies but by individuals who own anywhere between one and four units.

Those people, he said, still have to pay property taxes and mortgages.

The $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief plan does give property owners government-backed mortgage forbearance, essentially a way to temporarily reduce or defer payments to some lenders. Councilmember-at-large Helen Gym said forbearance will help a “sizable percentage” of Philadelphians, but Cohen pointed out that property owners will still have to make interest payments.

And, Cohen said, the current eviction moratorium is too broad and should be amended to ensure that those not paying rent show proof of hardship to prevent even “good” tenants who still have jobs from avoiding rent payments.

If – as the tenants’ rights groups predict might happen – people have a hard time catching up on rent payments when the outbreak subsides, landlords should receive grants for unpaid rent, Cohen said.

Gym, who led the charge in City Council on a citywide rent moratorium during the COVID-19 crisis, agreed that solutions need to also involve landlords who, like their tenants, are suffering hardships.

“We want to work with our landlords especially, to make sure that they are kept whole during this and that they have a plan for recovery. They can’t go bankrupt. That would throw our entire housing market into chaos, and not for the better,” she said.

But, Gym added, there needs to be more of an effort from the state and federal governments because the local government “can’t cover it all.”

In the meantime, she said she supports more protections for renters, including more stringent penalties for landlords who, the tenants’ rights groups wrote, are still circumventing the current moratorium and illegally carrying out evictions by changing locks and shutting off utilities.

Anyone currently being evicted should immediately call 911, Gym said.

But going forward, leaders on the local, state and federal level will need to find solutions that benefit all parties, she conceded.

“We really need to see this as being in it together,” Gym said.

NBC10 is one of dozens of 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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