🏠 This article is part of a series we’re writing about tenants’ rights in Philadelphia. Got a question? Ask us using the form at the bottom of this article.
Many evictions that were paused because of the pandemic could start again Tuesday — the first day Municipal Court allowed them.
But if you have lost income and can’t pay your rent, you may get a reprieve. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered many evictions for nonpayment halted through Dec. 31. However, the federal eviction moratorium comes with more caveats than Pennsylvania’s ban that expired Aug. 31, and not all tenants are protected from eviction.
The federal moratorium applies if you:
If you don’t meet these criteria and haven’t been making rent payments, you still could be evicted, according to the CDC order. Landlords also are allowed to evict tenants for reasons other than nonpayment of rent, such as lease violations.
If you get an eviction notice, take a breath. You have options. Here’s some advice from housing advocates and attorneys on what you should do if you’re behind on rent.
“One thing every tenant affected by COVID-19 should do right now, whether or not they’ve received an eviction notice from their landlord, is, they should send their landlord a COVID-19 hardship form,” said Vikram Patel, a staff attorney in the housing unit at Community Legal Services. That’s in addition to the CDC form swearing eligibility for the federal eviction ban.
If you are struggling financially because of the pandemic, send your landlord the COVID-19 financial hardship certification, which you can find on the Fair Housing Commission’s website. It entitles you to protections under City Council’s Emergency Housing Protection Act, including waiving your late fees, giving you access to mediation before going through the eviction process, and granting you more time to pay back rent. Document that you gave the form to your landlord — such as taking a screenshot if you texted it, or holding onto the email you sent — and keep a copy for yourself.
Housing advocates advise reaching out to your landlord as soon as possible if you don’t think you can pay your rent instead of waiting for an eviction notice. If you don’t pay and your landlord then sends you a notice, contact your landlord right away to see whether you can come to an agreement before going to court. Show your landlord you want to work with him or her.
“For a lot of landlords, it’s about whether or not you’re willing to engage with them and work something out with them,” Patel said. Housing advocates and attorneys can help you negotiate.
Landlords typically want to avoid evictions, which are time-consuming and can be expensive because of lost rent, legal bills, and vacancies. Both landlords and tenants are struggling financially during the pandemic.
“There are a lot of people caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Judith Jones, vice president of the Philadelphia Tenant Support Organization, which focuses on helping Black, brown, immigrant, and low-income renters.
Make sure you document your interactions with your landlord. For example, after speaking on the phone with your landlord, email or text him or her something like, “This is the agreement we came to. Let me know if this doesn’t reflect the conversation we just had,” Patel said.
“When you get to court, it’s all about what you can prove,” he said. “Without documentation, the court is probably not going to listen.”
Verify that your landlord has a rental license by searching for your address at atlas.phila.gov. If landlords do not have rental licenses, they cannot sue tenants for rent. The same goes for a certificate of rental suitability, which your landlord had to present to you when you signed the lease. This document from the Department of Licenses and Inspections verifies a landlord has necessary licenses and does not have code violations.
This means your landlord has to request a mediation conference through the program before filing for eviction if you have lost income because of the pandemic. Conferences are to be scheduled within 30 days after your landlord applies.
Ask your landlord whether he or she has requested a conference. If your landlord has not and has filed for eviction, you can argue in court that your eviction was filed improperly.
If you get an eviction notice or think you might, call the Philly Tenant Hotline, which pulls together renter resources, at 267-443-2500 and get an attorney as soon as possible, said Patel at Community Legal Services. An attorney can advise you of your options and put together a defense for court if your case makes it there. Low-income tenants can get free representation, and all tenants can get free advice. A lawyer also can determine whether an eviction was filed legally.
Roughly 380 evictions were filed from July 10 through the end of Pennsylvania’s eviction moratorium, and “most of those are improperly filed,” Patel said.
“Having an attorney involved helps because there is a lot of nuance to these cases,” he said. “There are defenses a tenant may not know about.” Tenants with attorneys generally reach more successful outcomes.
Organizations that can help you, if you’re in Philadelphia, include:
You can find lots of information on tenants’ rights from various organizations at phillytenant.org.
Jones of the Philadelphia Tenant Support Organization said to reach out to any of these organizations as soon as possible when you think you’ll fall behind on rent, or have gotten an eviction notice. They’ll give you the information you need, or direct you to someone else who can help.
The Philadelphia Tenants Union can send representatives to support you during court hearings and while you’re being removed from a property, said Noah Cote, an organizer with the group.
The Renters United Philadelphia Project at the Public Interest Law Center helps organize tenants to collectively negotiate with the same landlord. “There is really true power when tenants take collective action,” said Mary Beth Schluckebier, a staff attorney at the law center.
If you’re facing financial hardship because of the pandemic, you can apply for rental assistance through the state or the city before or after receiving an eviction notice. The deadline to apply for assistance is Sept. 30. Landlords must agree to participate in the programs, which has been a problem for the statewide initiative and the city program.
The programs do not have enough funding to meet renters’ needs, so housing advocates suggest applying as soon as possible.
And remember, if you want eviction protection under the federal moratorium, you must have attempted to get governmental rental assistance.
If your landlord has been neglecting the property and hasn’t been fixing issues you’ve brought up, document and photograph the disrepair. You can try calling L&I and ask for an inspection, and you can use the results during an eviction court hearing to argue against your landlord. You also can reach out to the city’s Fair Housing Commission for help.