Tim Favors’ apartment in Downingtown was more than just the place he came home to after his shifts working at a fencing company. It was the final destination of his years-long road to recovery and the anchor that had won him custody of his daughter, liberating her from a foster home. It was the place where Destiny, 13, could do her homework and they could live as a family.
Then Favors, 56, was dealt two major setbacks: COVID-19 affected his livelihood, and a heart attack affected his health. Tensions with his landlord reached a peak, and he found himself in front of a judge, a defendant in a landlord-tenant court case.
But he found help, thanks to a new program designed for people in his exact situation. In the fall, he became one of nearly two dozen Chester County residents to get free legal help through the Friends Association for Care and Protection of Children, a nonprofit based in West Chester. The organization’s new eviction-prevention program appointed him a lawyer. Together, they worked out a deal with his landlord that wiped away his debt and gave him time to find a new home, without having the scarlet letter of a court-ordered eviction against him.
“I was trying to do it on my own, but not working and not being able to see apartments the normal way, with COVID, it’s difficult,” Favors said. “They broke it down for me in ways I could understand. They showed me the best way to get out of a bad situation.”
In September, when a deluge of landlord-tenant disputes were filed as Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the state’s moratorium on evictions, the Friends Association began aiding struggling families that otherwise would have faced a housing crisis alone. A major tool in the group’s arsenal has been a similar but federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has enabled pro bono lawyers working with the nonprofit the leeway to broker deals and payment plans with private landlords.
“Many times, eviction is through no fault of the tenant,” said John Winicov, a former Chester County public defender working for the program. “They’re not deadbeats. They’re working people or they’re retired people on Social Security. Hard times can fall on anyone, so just a little bit of legal help could prevent someone from losing everything.”
These issues aren’t unique to Chester County, which before the pandemic had 2,500 landlord-tenant court cases filed just in 2019, or to Pennsylvania. An October study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that more than one million households are behind an average of $5,400 on their rent and utilities due to unemployment from COVID-19. Other studies from the U.S. Census Bureau show that families with children are more likely to face housing debt, as are Black and brown households.
Amid that uncertainty, the CDC’s moratorium on evictions is scheduled to end Dec. 31. But Jennifer Lopez, the association’s executive director, said that deadline has no effect on the services it will provide to Chester County residents.
“It’s not like we’re presenting the moratorium to a judge and saying, ‘Let’s wait to see what happens,’” Lopez said. “We’re working with families now, seeing what has gotten them to this point, and what services can help them be stable long-term.”
Addressing the ‘root causes’
Founded in 1822, Friends Association’s main mission is fighting homelessness in the county. The nonprofit is largely funded through federal and local grants.
The eviction-prevention program has centered on a single district court in Downingtown where most of the landlord-tenant cases in the county are filed each year. But the program’s success has representatives from the nonprofit now branching out to include two district courts that serve nearby Coatesville.
Friends Association is automatically notified whenever an eviction case is filed, and it in turn offers free representation to tenants. Normally, a lawyer’s aid on housing cases, from subpoena to resolution, would cost several thousand dollars.
And unlike similar eviction-prevention programs in Montgomery County and Philadelphia, the Friends Association has the benefit of being connected to the nonprofit’s umbrella of other services, including rental assistance and trauma counseling.
In the pandemic, that new service has become part of the group’s “holistic approach” to addressing that issue, according to Lopez.
“COVID has really brought to light the systemic issues not just in Chester County, but everywhere we face in terms of housing,” she said. “It goes beyond paying back rent and having basic needs met. How do we look at the root causes of these issues, for the sake of our community?”
Every Thursday, Magisterial District Court Judge Jeffrey Valocchi’s courtroom hosts the Friends Association attorneys as they work their landlord-tenant caseload. The judge has become one of the program’s most vocal supporters.
Most of the disputes, even pre-COVID, were about money, Valocchi said. And in a time when resources are strained for both parties, the eviction-prevention program has been mutually beneficial.
“Landlords understand that the best option for them is to work with this group,” he told The Inquirer during an interview in his chambers. “Even if you’re not getting 100% of your money, you’re going to be in a much better situation because of what’s going on in the world.”
He said most realize the pandemic’s impacts are likely to worsen, and new tenants might not have it any easier. “And if people are kicked out onto the street,” he said, “that hurts the whole community.”
The cases before him show how drastically even stable housing situations have shifted. Like the Downingtown man who lived in the same apartment for 10 years, but suddenly lost his job and was at odds with his landlord. Or the retired, fixed-income octogenarian who was days from being out on the street after her rent was drastically raised by the management company that owned the building she lived in.
Both found relief, and resolutions with their landlords, thanks to the eviction-prevention program.
Winicov explained that he and his colleagues don’t take an adversarial approach. It’s more a matter of knowing the law and how to negotiate, something that many tenants facing eviction rarely have the agency to do.
“There’s not always a defense, but there’s always something we can help with,” Winicov said.
Will the CDC extend the moratorium?
Those outcomes have been helped by the CDC’s moratorium. It bars landlords from evicting tenants who make less than $99,000 a year, are still making partial rent payments, and who have been unable to get government housing assistance.
Logistically, those delays require delaying the court cases until January. And Winicov uses that extra time to connect residents with resources, either through Friends Association or other organizations, and helps them find a “soft landing” on their terms, as opposed to a sudden uprooting from their home.
Still, some clarity from the federal government on the life of the moratorium would help him and his colleagues. It hasn’t come, even as the Dec. 31 deadline looms and COVID-19 case rates climb.
A national spokesperson for the CDC said she could not comment on whether the agency plans on extending the moratorium.
Favors, the Downingtown father, understands. The last few months, and their unexpected hardships, could have taken everything from him. But he survived, with help he says he is eternally grateful for.
And he’s asking everyone, tenant and landlord alike, to empathize with one another.
“With COVID-19, I fully understand that these landlords are pressed for their money,” he said. “But they also have to understand that COVID-19 is something totally different. We’re struggling, too.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.