Across Pennsylvania, renters struggling financially during the pandemic and landlords dependent on rent payments are waiting to find out what a federal judge’s order vacating the national eviction moratorium will mean for them.
Unlike Philadelphia and New Jersey, Pennsylvania does not have its own ban on locking out most tenants, so renters have been relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national ban. That moratorium is scheduled to run through June. But a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the agency had overstepped its authority in issuing the moratorium last year to try to stop the spread of the pandemic and that the nationwide ban is invalid.
The CDC moratorium remains in place for now, however, as counties across the region continue to distribute millions in federal funding for rental assistance to keep tenants housed, landlords paid, and eviction filings off court dockets. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is temporarily suspending its order until May 12 while plaintiffs respond to the appeal that the U.S. Justice Department filed Wednesday.
Andre Del Valle, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, said the federal judge’s ruling confirms what members have believed since the CDC issued its eviction ban in September — that the agency doesn’t have the authority to stop evictions in Pennsylvania.
“The moratorium is not only a challenge for large landlords, but it also impacts a lot of smaller landlords who before rental assistance didn’t have a single payment of rent coming into their account,” he said. “As tenants and many people were struggling during the pandemic, so were landlords who had to pay mortgages without money coming in.”
He said the lifting of pandemic restrictions, the return of employees to work, and the flow of federal rental assistance that is helping both landlords and tenants are major steps toward normalcy. Rental assistance, especially, “is another way of keeping folks in their home while folks continue to navigate the complexity of the times we’re in right now,” he said. The recent flow of additional assistance also is why housing advocates have said it is too soon to end the eviction moratorium.
Throughout the pandemic, associations representing apartments, landlords, and real estate agents have been fighting eviction bans that they say are depriving property owners of rental income they need to pay expenses. Paul Cohen, legal counsel for the property owner and manager association Hapco Philadelphia, said the latest court ruling appeared to apply nationwide, but the group is waiting to receive more clarity.
Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a tenant advocacy group, pointed out that Wednesday’s ruling is one of several attempting to strike down the moratorium.
“There are now numerous conflicting court rulings at the district court level, with several judges ruling in favor of the moratorium and several ruling against,” she said in a statement. “The DOJ is appealing this flawed ruling, as it has appealed others. The Biden administration must continue to vigorously defend and enforce the moratorium, at least until emergency rental assistance provided by Congress reaches the renters who need it to remain stably housed.”
Pennsylvania’s statewide eviction moratorium ended Aug. 31.
New Jersey’s eviction ban is in place for up to two months following the end of the state’s public health emergency declaration, which Gov. Phil Murphy has extended through mid-May. The Philadelphia Municipal Court’s ban on lockouts, which the court has extended several times, is scheduled to expire May 17.
Housing advocates in Philadelphia pushed for the city’s own moratorium to help tenants who would not receive protection through the federal moratorium. Working independently of any eviction ban is the city’s Eviction Diversion Program, which requires landlords to attend mediation with tenants before filing for evictions for nonpayment of rent.
Rachel Garland, managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, said she hopes Municipal Court will extend the city’s eviction moratorium.
“The reasons the court entered that order on April 1 still exist today,” she said, including the pandemic’s threat to public health and the court’s wish to give the city time to distribute rental assistance and resolve the cause of many evictions.
Philadelphia began making rental assistance payments to landlords on Thursday, according to Gregory Heller, senior vice president of community investment at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. More than 20,000 Philadelphia landlords and tenants have applied for aid.
Tens of billions of dollars in federal rental assistance have been promised nationwide to help tenants struggling financially during the pandemic and the landlords that house them.