On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf did the right thing when he signed an executive order extending the statewide moratorium on eviction and foreclosures by 60 days — through July 10. By taking this action, Wolf prevented the evictions and foreclosures that were set to resume Monday after an earlier moratorium set by the Supreme Court was set to expire. Wolf’s order relieved pressure on renters and homeowners thrown into economic peril because of the health crisis — but it also gives the state and counties critical time to safely handle the surge of eventual court filings while stabilizing communities in a time of unprecedented hardship.
Pennsylvania got close to an avalanche of evictions and foreclosures. Without a plan and resources to process the expected surge in fillings without compromising public health or the rights of tenants, it was irresponsible of the Supreme Court to lift the moratorium. But the General Assembly also deserves criticism. None of the three bills lawmakers proposed to extend the moratorium in a range of circumstances managed to advance out of committee. That’s shameful, given the devastating consequences to individuals of losing their homes at a time we are ordered to stay in our homes.
Now, with the governor taking executive action, Pennsylvanians shouldn’t lose their homes for the next two months. But in the meantime, renters and homeowners are accruing debt, and landlords are losing income.
Matthew Desmond, the author of the book Evicted and principal investigator of Princeton’s Eviction Lab, warns that moratoriums are simply delaying evictions without active measures to prevent them. In his research, Desmond documented that evictions disproportionally impact families with children, and the fallout of an eviction can be devastating to health and economic well-being — making the stakes too high for leaving landlords and tenants to figure it out alone.
Sharing Desmond’s concerns, the Reinvestment Fund published concrete recommendations for the city to handle the wave of COVID-19 related evictions.
Pennsylvania has 60 days to prepare for this surge. Much has to happen before the moratorium is lifted, and courts, counties, and the state all have a role to play.
Prepare the courts: Even after courts reopen, the threat of the coronavirus and the need for safety precautions is not going away. Making sure that courts have personal protective equipment for all parties, and the capacity to process the filings is critical to protect public health and a just process.
Provide legal assistance: Unlike landlords, most tenants arrive to housing court without a lawyer. Without legal representation, tenants are more likely to experience a disruptive displacement that could lead to homelessness. Last fall, Philadelphia City Council passed a right to counsel bill, guaranteeing legal aid for low-income tenants facing evictions. That promise, unique among Pennsylvania counties, depends on funding. It would be financially wise for the state and counties to invest in legal aid. A few hours of a lawyer’s time could replace weeks in a homeless shelter.
Expunging eviction records: Eviction records follow renters and put them on a spiraling path of housing instability. A bill proposed by State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler would expunge eviction records, ensuring that tenants currently experiencing hardship won’t be haunted for the rest of their lives by their inability to pay rent during a pandemic.
Encourage mediation: The Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program of the Philadelphia courts was considered a national model. A similar program for eviction could help landlords and tenants reach a satisfactory conclusion without eviction. A bill introduced in Philadelphia City Council would require evictions to go through mediation. Tenants statewide could benefit from similar programs.
Back rent and mortgage payments and offer forgivable loans: To relieve landlords, many of whom rely on rent payment for their livelihood, the state could pay the debt of renters and enter in a payment plan directly with the tenant — similar to the state’s Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program that needs to be expended. The state could also offer forgivable loans to landlords who do not evict, a housing variant of the paycheck protection program.
By extending a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the governor started a 60-day timer. Housing stability is the linchpin of economic recovery — and keeping people in their homes should be the priority.
The Philly Tenant Hotline (267-443-2500) provides legal advice for renters. More resources for individuals suffering financial hardship: https://www.pa.gov/guides/responding-to-covid-19/#ForIndividuals