On Wednesday, a Philadelphia City Council committee failed to advance a bill that would stop all evictions in Philadelphia through the end of the year. A sticking point: an amendment that would require tenants to show COVID-related financial hardship for the moratorium to take effect.
With the clock ticking on the expiration of the court-imposed citywide moratorium on lockouts (the actual execution of the eviction) on Nov. 8, state and federal aid stalled, and COVID-19 cases rising all over the city, that lack of progress could prove to be fatal. An estimated 2,000 Philadelphia households could be evicted imminently for cases that started before the pandemic.
Last June, City Council adopted an eviction moratorium through the end of August as a part of the Emergency Housing Protection Act. The moratorium banned any action in furtherance of an eviction unless the tenant poses a danger. And it worked. Despite criticism that multiple moratoria were confusing, and questions on enforceability, the presence of moratoria on the books reduced the number of daily eviction filings. When all that was left was the nationwide CDC order halting evictions that put the burden on tenants, eviction filings increased significantly.
On the day City Council unanimously passed the original moratorium, June 18, the city had reported about 70 new COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, when the committee delayed a vote on the renewal of the moratorium, the city reported 229.
How did an eviction moratorium that got unanimous support when case numbers were lower fail to get out of committee now that coronavirus cases have tripled? Health Commissioner Thomas Farley says the city is at risk to enter a “dangerous period with this virus.”
The discussion about evictions should not conflate two elements of the pandemic: public health and economic hardship. From a public health perspective, having families go to homeless shelters or double up with relatives increases the risk of coronavirus transmission regardless of the reason for the eviction. Halting evictions, which also have lifelong downward mobility consequences, is first of all a critical public health measure.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania estimates that allowing evictions to resume could lead to thousands of extra new coronavirus cases by the end of the year.
The burden of this critical public health safeguard should not fall on landlords — and tenants and landlords together should demand additional rental and mortgage assistance. In Harrisburg, the state House unanimously approved changes to a rental-assistance program that will release federal CARES Act dollars that currently go unused. The Republican state Senate leadership won’t allow a vote on the bill. Senate Republicans in Washington, D.C. are also at fault for not allowing a vote on the HEROES Act that passed the House in May and includes $200 billion in housing-related funds.
The task in front of City Council: follow the science, extend the moratorium, protect Philadelphians, and continue to push for more assistance. These are extremely hard choices, but it is the work the city has to do to survive this winter. The ability for people to safely stay at home is an issue the entire city should unite around.