On Tuesday, hours after Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium on evictions expired, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an unprecedented order halting residential evictions nationwide until the end of the year — providing critical relief for renters. That the highest health authority in the nation declared that “eviction moratoria — like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing — can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread [COVID-19]” is a welcome acknowledgment that housing is a public health issue.
Even with a broad nationwide moratorium, state lawmakers and local courts can’t sit back and assume that the eviction crisis has been taken care of now.
The moratorium comes with complex requirements — and complicated questions. It requires tenants to fill out a declaration — under penalty of perjury — to certify that they meet five conditions of eligibility, including income requirements, demonstrated loss of income, and efforts to obtain government assistance. A landlord who receives this declaration cannot start or continue an eviction proceeding for nonpayment of rent through the end of 2020.
None of this means that either the problem of housing instability during a pandemic or the looming eviction crisis are solved. With no rent relief attached, and by addressing only evictions and not also foreclosures, the moratorium places a burden on landlords.
It’s unclear whether the moratorium will stand up to legal challenges, and exactly how it will work. What is the process for landlords disputing the veracity of a tenant’s declaration? What safeguards will make sure that qualified tenants don’t fall through the cracks because they didn’t fill a declaration?
According to Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, the moratorium is both a monumental step and only part of the solution. Success will depend on outreach to educate landlords and tenants, as well as local landlord-tenant judges enforcing the order. In addition, Benfer stressed the importance of rent relief to prevent mass evictions instead of simply delaying the avalanche.
The Philadelphia Municipal Court can take a leading role in the enforcement of the CDC order. For example, the court can require landlords to inform their tenants of the declaration before filing for an eviction. It is highly unlikely that every eligible tenant knows about the order. The court should also inform landlords who attempt to file for eviction of their obligation under city law to request mediations through Philadelphia’s newly launched Eviction Diversion Program — where landlords and tenants can get to an agreement outside the court and get connected with assistance funds.
The first order of business for state lawmakers after Labor Day should be to vote on the Democratic package of legislation to protect renters and homeowners. The Safe at Home package would extend the state eviction and foreclosure moratorium, expand rent and mortgage assistance, waive late fees on payments, expand legal representation, seal evictions records, and protect renters’ credit scores.