Renters are facing another round of payments to their landlords amid soaring unemployment and financial strain as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.
Nearly a third of Americans didn’t pay their rent on time in April, according to a report from the National Multifamily Housing Council. And more than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment compensation since Gov. Tom Wolf closed nonessential businesses to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Pennsylvania doesn’t have the strongest protection for renters who have been financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. The group rated Pennsylvania a 3.13 out of 5 in a recent report (with a score of 1 indicating the lowest level of responsiveness), noting that evictions could surge in the commonwealth. New Jersey, meanwhile, did much worse, scoring of 1.65 out of 5. Delaware got a score of 3.88.
But what does all that mean for May? Here is what you need to know:
In short, yes. As the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office notes online, rental contracts that tenants have with their landlords are still valid, and rent payments are still due even though there’s a moratorium on eviction proceedings in the commonwealth. And, Eviction Lab notes, landlords in Pennsylvania are still allowed to charge late fees, report late or missed payments to credit agencies, raise rent, and issue notices of eviction.
The Philadelphia Tenants Union began calling for citywide collective rent strikes starting on May 1. According to the organization, the idea is to connect tenants who share the same landlord so that they can make collective demands such as rent reductions. It is not a “call for individuals to withhold rent on their own,” the group says in a statement.
“We don’t want to encourage people to go out and strike by themselves and risk getting evicted,” says Yosuke Araki, an organizer with the group. “The PTU wants to use our resources and navigate organizing in a strategic way to make it safe for as many people as possible.”
If you want to participate in the strike, the PTU has support for those striking, Araki says, including an anti-eviction task force to help prevent evictions, a rent strike fund to provide money for legal support, and resources and guidance for organizing. The organization, however, emphasizes online that groups of tenants should negotiate with their landlords for rent relief before resorting to a strike.
“It’s at that point, if the landlord is completely unforgiving, that we encourage a collective strike.” Araki says.
If you know that you will be unable to pay your rent, Kadeem Morris, a lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit, recommends reaching out to your landlord as soon as possible to explain the situation — preferably in writing. That way, he says, you will be able to request an accommodation or exception, and you’ll have evidence of an agreement should you need it.
“The important thing is if you come to an agreement, confirm it in writing and stick to that agreement,” Morris says.
As a tenant, you can ask for various options, including a payment plan, waiver of late fees, or a partial payment, or you can ask that your landlord consider applying funds from your initial deposit to missed rent. Individuals living in subsidized housing, meanwhile, can contact the Philadelphia Housing Authority and ask for a rent recalculation, Morris says.
If you want help with this conversation, the Good Shepherd Mediation Program is offering free virtual landlord-tenant mediation sessions in which an impartial third party can help resolve COVID-19-related conflicts. Both parties must agree to take part in sessions, and appointments can be scheduled by contacting Good Shepherd at 215-843-5413 or email@example.com.
You may also be able to get help through various emergency funds. Some of the options, as The Inquirer previously reported, include the Pennsylvania Apartment Association’s Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Fund, or the PHL COVID-19 Fund, which provides money to nonprofits for programs focusing on issues including homelessness prevention and rental assistance.
Eviction proceedings in Pennsylvania are on hold through at least July 10 because of a state moratorium.
If you’re in federally subsidized housing, the federal CARES Act has extended the date for evictions until July 25. And the same date applies if your landlord has a federally backed mortgage, which applies to about 40% of renters.
In addition, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a letter to landlords and mortgage companies asking them “not to institute any eviction proceedings … for some additional time period after our courts are reopened.” A spokesperson told The Inquirer that the letter was a request and doesn’t restrict landlords from pursuing evictions once the moratorium ends.
So far, Morris says, more than 1,700 eviction cases and more than 1,000 judgments have been postponed in Philadelphia because the courts are closed.
What if your landlord tries to evict you anyway? If you are facing a potential eviction, Morris recommends contacting the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project tenant hotline for guidance at 267-443-2500. You can find out more information at PhillyTenant.org.
As a renter, your rights during the pandemic are the same as before the outbreak, Morris says. You have the right to the court process, and you can’t be locked out of your home illegally.
“You can’t be locked out without going through the court process, where you have a date where you show up in court,” Morris says. “If your landlord comes to your house and you haven’t gone to court, and they try to intimidate you or shut off services, that is considered an illegal lockout.”
Here’s what the court process looks like: Landlords have to file eviction complaints in landlord-tenant court, which typically — when courts are open — results in a court date about two weeks after the initial filing, Morris says. If a judgment is issued in the landlord’s favor, there is a waiting period of at least 21 days before you can be locked out, so newly delinquent renters won’t immediately be removed from their homes once courts reopen.
If you are locked out illegally, Morris recommends calling the police while it is happening. If you return home and are locked out illegally, you should file a police report.
Moving is considered an essential activity in Pennsylvania. Both moving and storage companies are considered essential businesses, so if you have to move, there are services available to assist you.