In a “normal” year, without the economic devastation of a pandemic, one in 14 renters in Philadelphia faced eviction. Now, the coronavirus crisis could soon unleash an avalanche of evictions that the state and city can prevent.
About half of Philadelphians are renters. There will be no effective recovery post-coronavirus if many of those find themselves without a home. Evictions are extremely disruptive not just to lives, but to the economy. A 2018 study commissioned by the Philadelphia Bar Association found that for every dollar invested in legal counsel for renters facing evictions, Philadelphia avoids more than $12 in medical and social services costs.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., states all over the country responded by halting evictions and offering protections to renters. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab and Columbia University’s Emily Benfer released this week the COVID-19 housing policy scorecard, grading each state’s response. Pennsylvania scored a decent 3.13 out of 5 possible points — not because of intention, but because the courts have closed.
On March 16, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court closed all courts and placed a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until April 30; Philadelphia Municipal Court has extended its moratorium through May. When the courts eventually open, they will have to process thousands of eviction filings, leading to an administrative and economic disaster.
While the moratorium is in place, renters are amassing debt — and when people live paycheck to paycheck, paying back an extra month or two of rent could take a lifetime. That is also true for homeowners paying mortgages and landlords who depend on rent.
Property owners and renters are getting battered by this health crisis. Policymakers need to prevent a vicious cycle that pits tenants and landlords against each other. That is why any rent moratorium has to be coupled with foreclosure moratorium. If landlords don’t have a way to enforce rent collections, banks shouldn’t be able to enforce mortgage payments.
In Philadelphia, Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier are planning to introduce a bill to protect renters that will include extending the moratorium, stabilizing rents, and waiving fees. The bill will also include a mediation program before an eviction goes o court, similar to the successful foreclosure diversion program that Philly courts implemented after the financial crisis.
Pennsylvania should also consider reviving the Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, a loan program backed by the commonwealth to prevent foreclosures, and extend it to rent payments. There should also be a discussion about sealing eviction records and not reporting missed rent or foreclosure payments to the credit agencies.
Now is the time to lay the groundwork to ensure that everyone has stable housing. It’s the basis for any recovery. In addition, if people lose their house after this wave of COVID-19, they won’t have a home to stay in for the next one.
The Philly Tenant Hotline (267-443-2500) provides legal advice for renters.