More evictions can resume after the U.S. Supreme Court has ended the federal moratorium that was to last through Oct. 3 for areas with significant spread of the coronavirus, including Philadelphia and its surrounding counties.
Millions of people nationwide are now at risk of eviction as the delta variant drives up COVID-19 cases.
In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court said Thursday that any future federal eviction ban needs authorization from Congress. President Joe Biden acknowledged that this would likely be the court’s position before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reinstated its federal eviction ban this month. But he said the moratorium was meant to give time for tenants and landlords to receive billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance.
Counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have hundreds of millions of dollars still to distribute to tenants and landlords. As of Friday, Philadelphia had received more than 52,700 applications for rental and utility assistance. With current funding, the city expects to be able to help a maximum of 20,000 households.
Landlords and tenants have been frustrated with the pace of disbursement . Nationwide, state and local governments had distributed only 11% of tens of billions of dollars in federal rental assistance to tenants and landlords as of July 31, according to the Treasury Department.
Carol Christner, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, said “the problem lies in that our members are not getting paid by their residents, but their costs continue.”
She called the Supreme Court’s decision “a victory for our industry.”
“But our fight to be able to be paid for our properties remains,” she said. “We are somewhat concerned that Congress will attempt to pass legislation that would impose a moratorium that would replace the CDC’s.”
She said many members continue to work with their tenants to avoid eviction.
“It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s not a process that anyone benefits from in the long run,” she said.
The federal moratorium, which the CDC first put in place last September to slow the spread of the coronavirus, did not protect all tenants. Evictions across the region and the country have continued.
“We keep calling that order ‘the CDC moratorium,’ but it’s not really a moratorium,” Stephanie Dorenbosch, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Tenant Union Representative Network, said at an early August news conference calling for a citywide eviction ban. “It doesn’t stop or pause evictions. Right now, it’s just shuffling the sequence of evictions around.”
Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services lamented the loss of protection for the tenants the federal moratorium did cover.
“Last night the U.S. Supreme Court ended the CDC moratorium early, putting hundreds of Philadelphians who thought they were protected through Oct. 3rd at risk for immediate eviction,” the legal aid and advocacy organization said in a tweet Friday morning. “This means more surprise evictions for tenants who thought they had time to plan for a stable move.”
The organization reminded renters that their landlord needs a court order from a judge to evict someone. And then only a landlord-tenant officer or sheriff can lock out a renter.
The Biden administration has called on local and state governments to move more quickly to distribute rental aid and urged state and local courts to issue their own eviction bans as people wait for funds.
In Philadelphia, landlords must continue to try mediation with tenants through the city’s nationally recognized Eviction Diversion Program, apply for rental assistance, and wait 45 days before filing to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent. That mandate lasts through Oct. 31.
Landlords also cannot lock Philadelphians out of their homes who have submitted “complete” applications for rental assistance through the city — more than 25,000 applications as of Aug. 8 — according to a Philadelphia Municipal Court order.
Bucks County is pausing eviction cases for up to 60 days for tenants who have applied for rental assistance.
New Jersey has its own eviction moratorium that lasts through the end of the year for households with low and moderate incomes and through the end of August for others. A law Gov. Phil Murphy signed early this month includes $750 million in federal funds for rental and utility payment assistance, establishes the state’s Eviction Prevention Program, and moves eviction cases to a small claims civil court to prevent evictions and allow renters to pay off back rent over time.
The law’s legal remedies for landlords, additional rental assistance, protections for tenants, and phased-out approach to the eviction moratorium presents “a pathway back to normalcy,” said David Brogan, executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association.
“Having said that, the glacial pace in the disbursement of rental assistance is placing added strain on both landlords and tenants,” Brogan said in a statement. “Additionally, the expectation that landlords can continue to meet their financial obligations without rent revenue is completely unreasonable. Rent revenue is the lifeblood of the multifamily ecosystem, and government cannot expect private sector landlords to continue to provide housing for free.”
Pennsylvania’s eviction moratorium ended a year ago, and Philadelphia’s ban expired at the end of June.
“Since early July, we’ve been hearing from tenants who’ve been legally locked out of their homes, put out on the street, unable to access their belongings and medications, forced to squeeze into family and friend’s homes, or seek shelter somewhere much less safe than their own homes,” Dorenbosch said at the Aug. 9 news conference outside Philadelphia Municipal Court.
“In Philly, there are so many tenants queued up for eviction who aren’t covered that the CDC order is not achieving its stated purpose of reducing community spread of the coronavirus, because it’s not reducing the number of evictions,” she said. “It just chooses who gets locked out now, and who gets locked out after Oct. 3, but they’re all getting locked out.”
State Sens. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia), Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia and Montgomery), Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia and Montgomery), and Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) plan to introduce legislation early next month that would require landlords to apply for rental assistance before trying to evict Pennsylvania tenants for nonpayment of rent. Courts also would be required to pause eviction cases for 60 days while a tenant awaits a decision on a rental assistance application.
The bill would mirror a key provision of Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program and Bucks County’s eviction pause for rental assistance applicants.
“Overall, we need to keep people in their homes,” Saval said. “We need to find every possible way to do that.”