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Philadelphia police detain 17 protesters for blocking court entrance as eviction hearings resumed for a day

A federal moratorium on many evictions takes effect Friday.

Members of the Philadelphia Tenants Union lock arms to block one of the entrances to Philadelphia Municipal Court. The protesters are against the reopening of landlord-tenant courts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Members of the Philadelphia Tenants Union lock arms to block one of the entrances to Philadelphia Municipal Court. The protesters are against the reopening of landlord-tenant courts during the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

A federal order will take effect Friday halting most evictions in Philadelphia for people who can’t pay rent due to financial hardship amid the pandemic, but municipal court opened Thursday for eviction proceedings, prompting a demonstration by activists who blocked the entrances for hours.

Philadelphia police detained and cited 17 anti-eviction protesters who stood in front of Municipal Court and the District Attorney’s Office, which doesn’t execute evictions but shares a building with the court. The protesters were among more than 60 demonstrators who blocked entrances to the building with the goal of halting eviction cases that were initiated before March and, once the pandemic closures started, rescheduled to Thursday.

The demonstrators, organized by the Philadelphia Tenants Union, said their message is “no evictions during a pandemic.” The group tied the demonstration to the Black Lives Matter movement, saying evictions disproportionately impact Black women and children, and one organizer said the group considers evictions — which may be carried out by the Sheriff’s Office — a form of police brutality.

The protest ended about 1 p.m. after dozens of police officers, some with bicycles and others in tactical gear from the counter-terrorism unit, swept the area. Mayor Jim Kenney said during a news conference that while his administration supports the right to protest, “blocking a courtroom from people getting in or getting out is something that’s not part of your First Amendment right.”

Judges postponed some landlord-tenant cases, while others occurred in person for those who could make it into court or by phone for those who could not.

Thursday’s action was another demonstration tied to housing justice in Philadelphia, considered the poorest big city in America and where advocates say to expect an eviction wave for tenants unable to pay rent due to loss of income or employment. Some activists who took part in Thursday’s demonstration have for months supported two protest encampments of people experiencing homelessness, and negotiations between the organizers and city officials to end those camps have largely been fruitless. The city told those living at the encampments they have until Wednesday to clear out.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania residents prepare for the statewide eviction moratorium to end

Activists said they were determined to stop landlord-tenant court proceedings Thursday because the new federal order regarding evictions doesn’t take effect until Friday.

On Tuesday, the day after Pennsylvania’s statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium ended, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was implementing its own conditional nationwide eviction moratorium with the goal of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. To take advantage of the moratorium, eligible tenants must sign a document saying they meet the criteria and give it to their landlords.

The order prevents the eviction of tenants who earn $99,000 or less per year or were eligible for a pandemic stimulus check; have tried to get rent assistance from the government; have lost income or must pay high medical expenses; and would end up homeless or in cramped living quarters if they were evicted.

Eligible tenants must be trying to pay as much of their rent as they can. The order does not waive late fees, and it makes clear that tenants are responsible for coming up with the money to pay their rent.

While the CDC order is in effect, eviction cases over nonpayment of rent cannot move forward in the courts, and landlords cannot submit new eviction filings, according to guidance from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Landlords, who interpret the federal moratorium to apply only to the act of evicting tenants, are expected to challenge the order.

Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent can continue, and advocates fear landlords will use minor lease violations as a pretext to evict.

Victor Pinckney, first vice president of the Philadelphia landlords association HAPCO, said property owners still need a way to bring in income if they can’t evict and turn over units to tenants who can pay. He renewed the call for more rental assistance to help property owners.

”It’s not that we want tenants to be put out, especially during a pandemic,” Pinckney said. “All we’re asking for is to help us offset our costs... allow us to pay our bills, feed our families also.”

» READ MORE: Federal order protects many Pa. renters from eviction, though legal challenges may arise

City Councilmember Helen Gym said at least 2,000 Philadelphia renters have pending eviction cases. She said the city’s pandemic protections for tenants that waive late fees, extend repayment periods, and force landlord-tenant mediation help renters as the city implements the CDC’s order. Even with the federal order, local and state governments still must act to protect tenants, she said.

”We have a reprieve. It only matters if we take action during this time,” Gym said. “We cannot afford to wait. We need to use this time right now to make plans” for after the federal eviction moratorium ends Dec. 31.

Stephanie Dorenbosch, an attorney with the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), stood outside the court Thursday handing copies of the CDC’s declaration to tenants facing eviction. She said she wasn’t part of the protest, but TURN agrees with the demonstrators: Courts, especially those conducting eviction proceedings, should remain closed during the pandemic, she said.

“Landlords are saying, ’We need to be able to evict people,’” she said. “They’ve given us good reason to be scared of mass evictions.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.