City Council unanimously passed five housing bills Thursday meant to keep tenants struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic in their homes, in an attempt to prevent mass evictions and further strain on city services.
Council voted to extend the eviction moratorium, scheduled to end statewide in Pennsylvania on July 10, until Aug. 31 for Philadelphia’s residential renters and small businesses.
Mayor Jim Kenney plans to sign the bills, which are under review by the city’s Law Department.
Since the pandemic left many people jobless, officials and housing advocates fear many renters will be evicted and become homeless after eviction bans end. More than 5,000 evictions are scheduled, and thousands more are expected to be filed as soon as legally possible. Unemployment due to the pandemic and evictions disproportionately affect the city’s black and low-income renters.
Council also created an eviction diversion program that runs through the end of the year and requires landlords and renters to go through mediation before formal eviction proceedings. The Council votes also allow renters struggling financially due to the pandemic to take nine months to pay back rent using repayment plans; allow renters illegally locked out of their homes to recover damages; and prevent landlords from charging late fees or interest on back rent during the pandemic and for nine months after the emergency period ends on Aug. 31.
“Today, City Council stepped up to the plate and passed bills that provided needed security for our community members that have been hit the hardest by this public health crisis,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who along with Councilmembers Helen Gym and Jamie Gauthier introduced the package of bills they called the Emergency Housing Protection Act on May 1. “As someone who has faced housing insecurity firsthand, I know that these protections will have enormous impact on Philadelphia families. When families have homes to stay in, our whole city can be safer and healthier.”
Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. called Council’s actions “seismic.”
A bill that would have limited rent increases during the pandemic and for a year afterward did not advance for a full Council vote after a committee hearing.
Almost half of Philadelphia’s more than 1.5 million residents live in rental housing, and more than 300,000 struggled to pay rent before the pandemic, according to Council. More than 135,000 Philadelphians have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March.
During Thursday’s meeting, several renters described struggling since losing jobs and fearing eviction, and advocates warned of the health and economic consequences to individuals and the city in the event of mass evictions. Several landlords spoke against the bills, saying they created new burdens for property owners and managers also financially hurting during the pandemic.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey have created statewide rental assistance programs specifically for residents who have lost income because of the pandemic in attempts to help both renters and their landlords. Those programs are just getting started and will not distribute rent payments for several months.
The Philadelphia Tenants Union, the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations are among the groups that support the Council legislation.
Vik Patel, an attorney in Community Legal Services’ housing unit, noted that the city’s rental assistance program has reached only a small portion of people who need it, which makes the bills passed Thursday even more important. He said the bills would give renters and landlords time to access state rental assistance coming in the next few months.
The coming wave of evictions “is not going to hit all Philadelphians equally because of systemic racial inequality,” Patel said before the Council vote. “Philadelphia’s black community has been affected most by housing instability before the pandemic. During the pandemic, it was once again hit the hardest, and if these bills don’t pass, it’s going to be hit once again because of our inaction.”
Landlord Victor Pinckney Sr. spoke against the bills, saying they “take away any incentive for tenants to pay rent on time even if they can,” and “will have a devastating effect on rental property owners.”
Pinckney, a vice president on the board of directors of and a former president of the Philadelphia landlords association HAPCO, said that members primarily own duplexes and that landlords, too, are facing financial hardships.
He opposed extension of the eviction moratorium beyond July 10.
“Tenants should not be able to live rent free after that date,” he said. He said one of his tenants has not paid rent since February, before business closures because of the pandemic. He said he has a court hearing with the tenant scheduled for July 14.
Yosuke Araki, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, found it “ironic” that landlords were asking for empathy from Council while not extending empathy to their tenants during a pandemic. But, Araki said, financial responsibility of pandemic response should not fall on either renters or landlords.
“It should fall entirely on the government’s duty to wholly neutralize the effects of this pandemic,” Araki said. “These bills will provide significant protection against inevitable reactions that will be taken by financially hit rental owners, who will blame and punish their helpless tenants for their monetary losses, punishable by homelessness. And, consequently, punishable by death.”
Kenney announced this week that the city expects to collect roughly $749 million less in taxes during the upcoming fiscal year because of the coronavirus, which could lead to further cuts in city services or tax increases. Council is expected to vote on the latest proposed budget next week.
Philadelphia’s rental assistance program, which is closed to new applicants, is selecting 4,000 households for help with rent using $10 million in federal funds. Nearly 13,000 people applied for assistance. The city is asking residents and businesses for donations at phlrentassist.org.
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.