Victoria Lambert considers herself blessed. But she’s struggling.
An eviction moratorium kept Lambert, 64, and her 20-year-old son in their studio apartment in West Philadelphia throughout the pandemic after she stopped working as a restaurant hostess. She applied for rental assistance through the city last July, received funds in November, and caught up on rent.
Since then, “we’ve been making it,” she said, thanks to her Social Security payments and her son’s job at a school. But two months ago, her son suffered broken legs in a hit-and-run accident. He can’t work and their place on the fourth floor of a walk-up is now unworkable.
So while Lambert applies to jobs, she is looking for a new apartment. But she hasn’t found many options they can afford and is waiting to see whether she’ll get more rental assistance.
“I feel so much pressure right now,” she said.
The eviction bans that have kept people in their homes during the unprecedented pandemic and its economic fallout are nearing their end. People waiting for help are terrified that rental assistance will come too late.
“It’s a race at this point to see if the city can process [applications] and pay out the money fast enough,” said Rachel Garland, managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “That will resolve the vast majority of eviction cases.”
Consequences from both eviction bans and lockouts will reverberate long after the health emergency ends. Many renters fear losing their homes. And some landlords who have struggled to stay afloat without rental income plan to sell their properties, a blow to the already scarce affordable housing in the city.
Running out of time
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended through July 31 its national eviction moratorium, which is open to eligible renters who fill out a form and was scheduled to end June 30. The CDC has said this extension will be the last while the Treasury Department continues to disburse rental assistance to state and local governments without an immediate deadline.
New Jersey’s renters may have some more time. The state’s eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent is scheduled to end Dec. 31 for households with low and moderate incomes and Aug. 31 for everyone else, according to a bill the New Jersey Legislature passed last week. Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said the governor does not comment on pending legislation.
Philadelphia’s eviction moratorium, which applies to a broader range of tenants than the CDC ban, will end June 30, as planned.
During the eviction bans, more illegal lockouts have continued as some landlords — frustrated with their inability to evict through the courts — changed locks, switched off utilities, and put off necessary repairs. Some renters are leaving in anticipation of getting evicted once the bans end.
Meanwhile, protections in City Council’s Renters’ Access Act — including requiring landlords to use uniform, written screening criteria and give less weight to credit and eviction histories — won’t take effect for at least three months.
The extra month of the CDC’s eviction moratorium buys time for the city to get money into the hands of more tenants and landlords, Garland said. The city has disbursed about $94 million in total to about 20,000 households since spring 2020.
The city has received more than 33,500 applications for the latest round of rental assistance, which opened April 1. As of June 25, the city had reviewed about 8,400 applications — or 25% — and approved a little more than 5,000 of those. In this latest phase, the city has disbursed about $28.5 million of $127.5 million in federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds for rent and utilities.
Greg Wertman, president of Hapco Philadelphia, the city’s largest landlord association, said members are starting to receive those funds. Hapco represents many of the city’s small and midsize landlords.
“There’s a lot less people calling to find out when [the moratorium] ends,” Wertman said. “And the reason is that they’re all trying to get this money.”
Philadelphia has received national recognition for its Eviction Diversion Program and interest from other cities wanting to start something similar. On Thursday, the day the CDC extended the national eviction moratorium, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to supreme court chief justices in all 50 states urging the use of rental assistance and eviction diversion to prevent mass evictions. It cited Philadelphia Municipal Court’s April order requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance before filing for eviction and to participate in Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program.
“It’s really because Philadelphia has created this model that doesn’t just kick the can down the road,” Garland said. Instead, it addresses the root cause of most evictions: money.
More than 2,300 pairs of landlords and tenants have met with mediators and housing counselors as part of the Eviction Diversion Program, which was launched in September. So far, about 57% have reached agreements or have agreed to keep negotiating. The program has focused on helping participants get rental assistance and has cut the number of cases that make it to court.
Navigating rental assistance
Housing advocates and landlords have said the city’s rental assistance program has improved across its four iterations during the pandemic, but some tenants are still having trouble.
“People are still on pins and needles right now,” said Judith Jones, vice president of the Philadelphia Tenant Support Organization. “Because it’s really hard to get this money from the rental assistance programs. You have to jump through hoops to get this money.”
Not everyone who needs rental assistance is able to get it. For example, said Jacob Speidel, director of tenant rights at SeniorLAW Center, one woman found out last week that her application was denied, because the city saw her current wages and said her annual income was slightly too high. But she had lost her job in the medical field at the start of the pandemic and just recently returned to work.
She paid June’s rent and will pay for July, but she owes $20,000 in back rent. Her landlord agreed to let her stay at least through Aug. 31. “But if she can’t come up with the back rent by that point,” Speidel said, “she’ll have to leave.”
“We’re concerned that all these people who have applied for rental assistance and should qualify for it may reach the end of the eviction moratorium and lose their homes before the money comes through that is designed to make the landlords whole and keep renters in their homes,” he said.
Anthony Krupincza operates six rental units in North and West Philadelphia as a landlord and doubles as the property manager and handyman. He said that when the pandemic hit, “I was really, really, really worried at the time about what we were going to do.”
But he has done well, he said, because he and his wife “got ahead of it,” reaching out to his dozen or so tenants early on to foster communication and ask whether they needed help, “instead of ‘Where’s my rent?’”
“I think that really saved us,” he said.
After rental assistance became available, he helped several of his tenants get funds, including a woman who had left her retail job for fear of getting sick and a Spanish-speaking tenant who couldn’t complete the application.
Beyond the pandemic
City Councilmember Kendra Brooks said that especially early in the pandemic, her office received daily calls from tenants afraid of being evicted. City officials and housing advocates envisioned a nightmare scenario of thousands of Philadelphians losing their homes during the pandemic.
Brooks, who with her colleagues sponsored bills since March 2020 that expanded renter protections, said the health and economic crisis “exposed all these deep-seated structural issues that have been building for years, and more folks have seen that we can’t wait to address them.”
“The eviction moratorium will end,” she said, “and the reality is the city needs to have programs in place to transition or stabilize people.”
On the other side of the pandemic, Philadelphia also stands to lose some of its scarce affordable housing.
Some small and mid-size landlords plan to sell their properties after eviction bans end because of difficulties collecting rent during the pandemic and rising property values, owners and housing advocates said. It’s another looming problem as the city works to keep people in their homes now, and it stands to undercut the slew of tenant protections that City Council has passed since the pandemic began.
“The affordable housing is going to shrink like we’ve never seen it shrink before,” said Wertman, of the landlord association Hapco. “There’s a large percentage of housing providers that are going to be selling.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.