Housing agency coalition offers help to renters facing eviction

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended the federal moratorium on evictions until Oct. 3. In a statement, CDC officials said the renewed effort, which comes days after the original eviction ban lapsed on July 31, will allow rent relief to flow and vaccination rates to rise as the new delta variant of COVID-19 spreads. But, despite the extended moratorium, thousands of Philadelphians tangled in landlord-tenant disputes face a possible loss of housing during the ongoing pandemic.

The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, a collaborative including Clarifi, Community Legal Services, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Philadelphia VIP, Senior LAW Center, and Tenant Union Representative Network, continues to aid city residents facing eviction. With the current moratorium likely to face legal challenges, representatives of PEPP asked renters to apply for housing assistance. Philadelphia’s Phase 4 rental and utility assistance program began June 30 and no longer has a maximum dollar amount. Landlords seeking to remove a tenant must first take part in the city’s one-of-a-kind Eviction Diversion program.

According to Joan Belfus, a paralegal in Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit, the current eviction moratorium, which covers communities with surging cases of COVID-19, includes Philadelphia. Tenants must complete a CDC Protection Declaration and send it to their landlords.

“We suggest a tenant do this through text message or email because this is dated and time-stamped,” Belfus said. “And if they are at risk for a lockout, they should also give a copy to the court and apply for rental assistance as soon as possible.”

The CDC extension came after several days of back-and-forth between Congressional Democrats and the White House, sparked by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who slept on the Capitol steps for three nights in protest. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that only Congress could extend the moratorium. But last week, legislators couldn’t muster enough votes before breaking for recess.

Before the pandemic, Philadelphia had one of the highest eviction rates in the country. According to the National Equity Atlas, the tri-state area, including Camden and Wilmington, has 146,000 households behind on rent, with an estimated debt of $3,300 per household.

“Extending the federal eviction moratorium was an absolute necessity, and that is why I’m calling on our municipal court to halt all lockouts, which resumed just a few weeks ago,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym. “I have heard from families with young children, seniors and others who are being removed from their homes but could have qualified for protection through this moratorium or through rent assistance.”

As COVID-19 cases rise in the city, landlords can still evict tenants from their homes. Vijaya Singh, a landlord-tenant staff attorney at Philly VIP, noted that Municipal Court resumed eviction lockouts on July 1. She said tenants should apply for rental and utility assistance right away. To date, 24,000 households in the city have received over $128 million through four phases.

Moreover, Singh urged tenants to take advantage of all available resources.

“Call the TURN Network,” said Singh. “If [renters] already have a hearing scheduled for eviction, they can call Community Legal Services for help. Look on phillytenant.org. We have a hotline, which is 267-443-2500.”

Philadelphia has several protections in place for renters that are a model for the rest of the nation. The Emergency Housing Protection Act may grant tenants a waiver of late fees based on COVID-19 hardships. And under the Eviction Diversion program, landlords must first participate in good-faith mediation efforts before moving forward with an eviction. Prevention of the latter can protect a person’s future ability to rent.

Still, PEPP members have concerns about their clients. Top of their list is the resumption of lockouts and notice, or the lack thereof, of when they might occur. Sherry Thomas, the housing initiative director at Legal Clinic for the Disabled, said that lockouts could be coming any day for evictions filed prior to March 2020 which were then stayed by the pandemic.

And tenants might not be aware.

“What we’re seeing is that there are a number of evictions that were adjudicated right before the pandemic,” said Thomas. “Those writs are starting to get served and my concern is that for those tenants that were, that have now been in the property for the last year and a half, they’re not getting any new notices.”

Worried tenants can email the eviction officer or via phone at 215-563-2133 to find out a day in advance if they are scheduled for a lockout. In the meantime, PEPP organizations continue to monitor the moratorium situation and offer assistance to all those in need.

“You have enough to worry about with the pandemic,” Belfus said. “You shouldn’t have to worry about losing your home on top of it.”

Philadelphia tenants in need of housing assistance can visit phillytenant.org or call 267-443-2500. TURN also holds online tenant’s rights workshops on Zoom daily. For more information on rental assistance, eviction diversion, or eviction moratoriums, visit here.

From Metro